“They frighten me, my children,” says Lena Younger, early in “A Raisin in the Sun,” establishing that Lorraine Hansberry’s trailblazing-and-still-vital 1959 drama has its eye on the future.
Throughout the poetic play, there is talk of events to come: A baby being born. The medical career that Lena’s daughter, Beneatha (Camrin King), is preparing for. The liquor store that Lena’s son, Walter, plans to open. And, occupying the dreams of everyone in the Younger household, what is to be done with an insurance settlement resulting from the death of Lena’s husband.
Lena (Charla Marie Bailey) and everyone in the household has ideas about how that “big ol’ check” could be used.
Lena and daughter-in-law Ruth (Dana Lee Thompson) both think it should buy a home, so Lena makes a deposit on one in a white neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. That leads to an ominous visit from Karl Lindner, a bigot who lives in that neighborhood and is willing to pay the Youngers not to integrate it. (Lindner, and the home in question, also are crucial to “Clybourne Park,” which had its area premiere at the Guthrie Theater in 2013.)
“A Raisin in the Sun” takes its title from the Langston Hughes poem called “Harlem,” which asks what it does to people when they’re forced to keep deferring their dreams.
It is usually considered a play about race, partly because the question of housing equality remains potent in 2019 (the History Theatre will produce two plays about racially motivated housing covenants next season) and partly because Hansberry was the first black woman to be produced on Broadway. And, of course, race is central to the story, which references how slavery and injustice shaped African-American families.
But Austene Van’s production makes sure we notice that “Raisin” also is about gender dynamics within the Younger family, led by three strong women who let Walter blather on about how “colored women should build up men” while quietly taking steps to keep the family strong.
These women are also the surest performers in this “Raisin” production. Several actors were shaky on opening night and, as a result, the pace occasionally dragged, but Bailey, King and Thompson sharply delineated their characters’ contrasting approaches to surviving a white-controlled society that blocks their every attempt to get ahead.
Van’s production is attuned to the humor of “A Raisin in the Sun” and its opportunities for nonverbal communication, areas where the three women proved adept (simultaneously, in the case of a moment when Walter tells Ruth he doesn’t want scrambled eggs and she instantly sets to scrambling).
The end of the play looks, again, to the future: to that house the Youngers may or may not move into, and to where that would put them in a world Walter says is divided into “who gets and who don’t get.”