Cue Etta James' legendary recording of "At Last" for the Guthrie Theater. After being buffeted and delayed by the pandemic, "A Raisin in the Sun" finally opened Friday at the Minneapolis playhouse. And the company's first-ever in-house production of Lorraine Hansberry's masterwork was worth the wait.
The Guthrie's finely hewn staging unspools like a lyrical suite of music, with ensemble performances that are as aching as they are beautiful. Nearly all of the players get their spotlight, blowing their character's dreams and anguish into the ether. Without losing much of its poetry and import, the show finds loads of laughs, making it the lightest "Raisin" the Twin Cities has seen in decades.
A revival of any classic raises the question of why this play and why now. The Guthrie has had a "Raisin" on its stage before. In 2009, it presented a co-production directed by Penumbra Theatre founder Lou Bellamy. That version came in the wake of the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first Black president and was tinged by the earnest, if simplistic, notion that America had entered its longed-hoped-for post-racial promised land and that the show was perhaps an outdated yardstick by which to measure that achievement.
This new version, by Austene Van, comes a hair under two years since George Floyd was killed just 3½ miles from the theater. Today's contested and fraught atmosphere sharpens the relevance of Hansberry's 1959 breakout drama, whose dreams of home ownership, education and middle-class stability are as current as ever.
The Youngers, a Black family living in a multilevel, multifamily rat trap on Chicago's South Side, hope for a fulfilled American life. Devout matriarch Lena Younger (Tonia Jackson) wants a home for the three generations of her offspring living together, something with a garden, indoor bathroom and enough bedrooms so that her grandson Travis (Joshaviah Kawala, who alternates the role with Adolphe Magloire Jr.) doesn't have to sleep on the couch.
Thirty-something son Walter Lee (James T. Alfred), who lives under his mother's roof with his wife, Ruth (Anita Welch), wants to invest in a sustainable business with friends, even if the liquor store that he eyes offends Lena's religious sensibilities. And daughter Beneatha (Nubia Monks), torn between suitors who represent assimilation in America and renaissance in Africa, wants to go to medical school.
They all have a bit of tragic luck. The family patriarch has died, leaving everyone anxious for the $10,000 insurance payout that will possibly foot their dreams.
Director Van finds moments of tenderness and understanding throughout, with a jeweler's eye to the smallest moments. Regina Garcia designed the choking, chock-a-block set that does not change.
Things have been been subtly lit by Alan C. Edwards so that we can feel the claustrophobia and weight of the family's struggle, including with nosy upstairs neighbor Mrs. Johnson (tornadic Jamecia Bennett). Sound designer Jeff Lowe Bailey uses jazz selections to set the mood aurally as the players have at it, delivering like forces of nature.
Jackson is ferociously beautiful as Lena. She feels all the hurts, joys and hopes of her family members, gathering the emotions and giving them back as correction for the adults and balm for her grandbaby. Similar kudos goes to Alfred. When this self-described volcano finally spills his pent-up fire, he lands on his knees in an act not of brokenness but of release and arrival. He has finally achieved manhood, never mind that he's married and still living with Ma.
Monks, in her Guthrie debut, delivers a shiny Beneatha whose flippancy stands out. Warm, witty and wonderful, she embodies Black joy. Welch captures Ruth's conflicts and struggles, drawing us into her heartbreak and hopes as she dreams of stretching out in a bathtub with hot water enveloping her.
There also are nice turns by Ernest Bentley as rooted and optimistic Nigerian student Joseph Asagai, Chaundre Hall-Broomfield as smug assimilationist George Murchison and Kawala as Travis, a child of beauty, innocence and promise.
Terry Hempleman, in the role of the white neighborhood association president, Karl Lindner, is elfish as his character tries a sweetener to get the Youngers not to move to their neighborhood. He embodies a wider and whiter world of resistance and blockage with which the Youngers contend.
Hansberry took her title from "Harlem (What Happens to a Dream Deferred)," a 1951 Langston Hughes poem whose questions, like this play it inspired, resonate in post-Floyd America:
"Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore — / And then run? ... Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"
'A Raisin in the Sun'
Who: By Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Austene Van.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 1 p.m. Sun. Ends June 5.
Tickets: $26-$80. 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.