Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” directed by Phyllis B. Gitlin for the Long Beach Playhouse’s Mainstage Theatre, presents a compelling look at the choices an African-American family face at the dawn of the Civil Rights era.
Set in Chicago, in a worn down, claustrophobic apartment, the production recounts the story of the Youngers, a poor family that’s about to receive a $10,000 windfall from a life insurance policy held on Walter’s (Derek Shaun’s) and his sister Beneatha’s (Dominique Johnson’s) father. Walter, a barely-making-it limousine driver, wants to use the money to open a liquor store. His wife Ruth (Latonya Kitchen) wants to parcel out the money: some for Beneatha’s education, some for a house for which, curiously, she puts a down payment in an all-white neighborhood, and some in Walter’s pie in the sky liquor store. She makes the down payment on the house and gives the rest to Walter to disburse on the agreed-upon projects. He promptly loses it all when his alleged chum Willie (Not shown.) absconds with it.
The performances rock. The ensemble cast is well-chosen and tightly knit. Shaun’s Walter is a hapless, vulnerable visionary. He thinks big but feels entitled, as if the world owes him a break: unable or unwilling to put in the requisite effort. Kitchen’s Ruth is his perfect foil. Pragmatic, rational, not asking a heck of a lot from the world, she has sensible plans for the money. She’s got convictions (She won’t invest in a liquor store) but she also loves Walter enough to blindly trust him. Johnson’s Beneatha is flat-out intriguing. She’s ambitious (She wants to be a doctor.), patient, and hard-working (Things her brother isn’t.). Her choice of men (Jeffery Rolle Jr.’s Joseph Asagai and Ali Ahmad’s George Murchison) doesn’t just reflect her broad dating preferences, it also reflects, on a deeper level, choices available to Walter that he’s too self-absorbed to see. He can blend in, socially, economically, with the white folks, as George does, or embrace his African heritage, as Joseph does. So fascinating is her character that you have to wonder what a sequel would make of what she ends up doing with the rest of her life.
See it for the passionate acting. See it for Gitlin’s directing that’s so seamless that you don’t even notice it. See it for Greg Fritsche’s set design that creates an atmosphere of cabin fever that also suggests a clustered heap of possible outcomes. See it for the surgically precise dissection of a family in turmoil, especially for that last scene. The family’s about to spiral out of control. They’re disappointed with Walter getting snookered for the bulk of the inheritance. They have to decide whether or not to take the money that Karl Lindner (Jeremy Bear) will offer them not to move into the all-white neighborhood. At that last instant, when things can go majorly sideways, the until-then fractured family comes together to form a united front, thus proving, economics, race, and personal idiosyncrasies aside, that blood is thicker than water.
Performances are 8pm, Friday and Saturday, 2pm, Sunday. The production runs until June 18. Tickets are $14 - $24. The Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim Street, Long Beach, 90804. For information call (562) 494-1014 or visit www.lbplayhouse.org.