When Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun was revived on Broadway in 2004, Phylicia Rashad took home a Best Actress Tony for playing Lena Younger, the sage matriarch of the family at the center of the show. Rashad also brought Lena back to life in a TV movie version on ABC in 2008. Though not on stage, the Cosby Show alum still presides as something of a matriarch over Raisin’s latest outing — running through Feb. 19 at L.A.’s Kirk Douglas Theatre — but this time as the show’s director. (The actress made her directorial debut in 2007 with August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at the Seattle Rep.)
Rashad’s production of Raisin is warm and comfy at times, hard to watch in several moments, and full of laughter and tears throughout — all signs that Rashad loves and knows the material and handles it with great care. Rashad’s involvement isn’t the only special thing about this production: Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning Off Broadway play inspired by A Raisin in the Sun, makes its L.A. debut at Kirk Douglas’ sister theater, the Mark Taper Forum, beginning Jan. 25, giving theater-goers the chance to see both plays back-to-back for the first time.
Set in the early 1950s, Raisin is both racially charged and relevant to our tough economic times with its intense focus on the pursuit of the American Dream. The Younger family — a tight-knit African American clan living together in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Chicago — receives a windfall of life insurance money after the death of the family patriarch and has to decide what to do with it. Lena (Kim Staunton) and her daughter-in-law, Ruth (Deidrie Henry) want to buy a house in the suburbs, while Lena’s son, Walter (Kevin T. Carroll), wants to use the money to open a liquor store in their Southside neighborhood.
After the money threatens to tear the sometimes-volatile-but-loving family apart — combined with the revelation that Ruth is pregnant with a second child — Lena buys a house in the all-white enclave of Clybourne Park. The purchase ruffles the feathers of the neighborhood’s improvement board, which offers to pay the Youngers to stay away. Ultimately, the decision falls to the hard-headed and bitter Walter, who has to decide what kind of father he wants to be for his son. Is he someone who accepts a dirty payout to go away quietly? The seemingly bleak situation surprisingly provides a strong shock of warmth at the end. (Clybourne Park chronicles what happens in the suburban house at question both before and decades after the events in A Raisin in the Sun.)
”There is always something left to love,” says Lena near the end of the show, and the sentiment couldn’t feel more appropriate for this snug, enrapturing, well-worn production. Thanks to the acting chops of the performers — a special shout-out goes to the captivating and beautiful Kenya Alexander, who plays Walter’s idealistic sister Beneatha — what emanate from the stage are feelings of love, and — most refreshingly — hope. Lots of it. Despite the sharp words, wounded hearts, and uphill battles that the Younger family faces here, this Sun boils with lots of warmth. A
(Tickets: centertheatregroup.org or 213-628-2772)