By Rosalind Friedman


Lorraine Hansberry's first play opened on Broadway in 1959. The first play written by an African/American woman to be produced on Broadway, it starred Sidney Poitier and was directed by a very young Lloyd Richards, who would later become Artistic Director of the Yale Rep and Drama School and Ct's O'Neill Center. Hansberry died far too young in 1964 a the age of 34, but A Raisin in the Sun, has been inspiring audiences all these years and remains contemporary. An African/American from a comfortable family in Chicago, Hansberry experienced the issues she writes about with a full heart and a great deal of passion. While there are many strengths in the production now on the boards of the Westport C Playhouse, the tempo is sluggish, the first act is far too long, and that leads to a missing spark.


The director here is the fine actress Phylicia Rashad, who was the first African American actress to win the Tony for Best Leading Actress for her role as Lena, the matriarch of the Younger family in the 2004 Broadway revival. On a large, grimy living room- dining room-kitchen on Chicago's Southside, designed by Edwards Burbridge and lit very dimly by Xavier Pierce, the five-member Younger family is struggling to start their day. Young Travis, played by the adorable Luka Kain, is being awakened by his ever-patient mother, Ruth, a maid, played sweetly by Susan Kelechi Watson. Travis sleeps on the sofa and angers his dad, Walter Lee, by taking too much time in the one bathroom they all share. Walter, the tall, affable Billy Eugene Jones, is going through a crisis. His father has died, and his mother, Lena, depicted by Linda Gravatt with a sense of purpose but a lack of warmth, is expecting an insurance check for $10,000. Walter, a chauffeur, is salivating for that money for he wants to go into a partnership with two friends to open a liquor store.


Edena Hines gives a spirited performance as Walter's sister, Beneatha -- Lorraine Hansberry's alter ego; she's a college student, who has tried many pursuits, but now has a desire to become a doctor. Beneatha is dating two students: George, rich and black and supercilious, the effective Gabriel Brown, and Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian, who wants her to travel with him to help the people in his country. Hubert Point-Du-Jour is charming in the role, but his accent is difficult to understand. That is too bad because he has important things to say.


Lena has ideas of her own, and when she finds out that Ruth is expecting a child, puts a down-payment on a house in Clybourne Park, a white suburban community. Hysteria abounds. Walter loses his and his family's money; Karl Linder, a Clybourne representative, the crisp John Hemphill, offers to buy the Younger family out, explaining that the community will shun them; Beneatha fights with her mother, Lena, espousing her opinion that there is no G--d; it looks as if everything has fallen apart. And then, in a moment of truth, Walter steps up to the plate, and the family is on the way out of the darkness to sunlight.


In the real story, in 1938, Lorraine's dad, Carl, moved the family to a restricted area of Chicago to challenge local covenants that barred African/Americans from living in certain parts of the city. They experienced harassment by their white neighbors and it sparked a two-year legal battle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. With the help of the NAACP, the Hansberrys' were victorious, but unfortunately the restrictive covenants were allowed to stand.


If the name Clybourne Park is familiar -- Bruce Norris won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his play, which follows the fictional history of this community.


A Raisin in the Sun will play through November 3 at the Westport Country Playhouse.


This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1FM FINE ARTS PUBLIC RADIO.

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