Phylicia Rashad just may have directed the definitive version of Lorraine Hansbury's A Raisin in the Sun. [Rashad won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her role in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun and won the 2009 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special for the 2008 television adaptation.] Her show, playing through November 3 at the Westport Country Playhouse, has all the elements required for an impeccable production. Rashad's deft and sensitive direction is rewarded with flawlessly cast characters, perfect costumes by ESosa, and scenic design by Edward Burbridge that beautifully captures the family's dignity in an old, cramped apartment.
The story centers around a $10,000 insurance policy following the death of Lena's husband. Lena (played by Lynda Gravátt), ever the matriarch of the Younger family, wants to buy a house that is spacious enough for the entire family – her son Walter Lee (Billy EuGene Jones), daughter-in-law Ruth (Susan Kelechi Watson), grandson Travis (Luka Kain) and daughter Beneatha (Edena Hines). But Walter Lee feels trapped as a chauffeur and dreams of making money by investing in a liquor store with Bobo (Alvin Crawford) and an unseen friend. Beneatha wants the money so that she can go to medical school. Gravátt infuses Lena with a credible combination of humor, toughness, anxiety, wisdom and unconditional love as she hears out her children's arguments for how to spend the money. Walter Lee tells her, "Mama -- Mama -- I want so many things... I want so many things that they are driving me kind of crazy..." and "Colored people won't get ahead until they start gambling on investments."
Lena decides to divide the money to keep her family content and intact. She puts a down payment on a house in Clybourne Park, a Wonder Bread neighborhood that wants to maintain segregation. The residents send a one-man "Welcome Wagon" with an offer to buy the house at a premium if they would just move to another place. (John Hemphill plays the perfectly mannered hard-core bigot Karl Linder with such credibility that the audience booed him during the curtain call. Consider that a compliment.) But the rest of the money disappears along with Walter Lee's unseen friend and it sends him into a brief tailspin of bitterness and vengeance. It's "between the takers and the tooken," he says. "We get to looking 'round for the right and the wrong, and worry about it and cry about it and stay up nights." Lena's will drives him back to the right path. Yes, a dream deferred may dry up like a raisin in the sun, but raisins can be plumped up again, as any baking enthusiast knows. And remember, those "takers and the tooken" are all about Equal Opportunity. Think Bernie Madoff and his Greenwich victims. Think of the corporate vultures who have outsourced jobs overseas. Think of the mortgage companies that jacked up the price of real estate and then lured people into buying homes they couldn't afford. Oh, yes. We can all relate to Hansberry's characters.
Don't defer seeing this production of A Raisin in the Sun. Every performer in it, including the supporting actors Gabriel Brown and Hubert Point-Du Jour as Beneatha's boyfriends and Ade Otukoya and Donnell E. Smith engage the audience. This production is as good as it gets.