Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (1959) has for so long sat atop an honored pedestal that audiences can be forgiven for fearing it’s less good than good for you.
It’ll take only five minutes of the new Kansas City Rep production that opened Friday in Spencer Theatre to dispel any such misgivings.
This “Raisin...” — directed by Chip Miller and Marissa Wolf and played by one of the Rep’s strongest ensembles in recent memory — begins with such a down-home, recognizable display of family dynamics, including enough big laughs that you wonder if you’ve stumbled into a comedy, that we are immediately sucked into the world of the Younger family.
That they are African American and living in a ratty Chicago tenement in the 1950s is obvious — but almost beside the point. The issues Hansberry addresses here are universal, applying to all races and ethnicities.
That isn’t to say that “Raisin...” isn’t also race specific. It is a landmark in African American theater, overflowing with hot-button themes: housing discrimination, the psychological emasculation of African American men, the embrace (and rejection) of religion, “bad” hair, back to Africa ideals and abortion.
In lesser hands these could come off like a checklist of talking points. But “Raisin...” incorporates all those ideas within the framework of its characters and their situations. There’s not much speechifying, even less polemics.
And what a collection of grab-you-by-the-collar characters!
Walter (Tosin Morohunfola) chauffeurs a rich white man and dreams of making his own mark on the world, of getting a piece of the American Dream. For years his hope of self betterment has bern stymied, placing a not inconsiderable chip on his shoulder.
Now, though, Walter sees a glimmer. His father recently died and any day now the family expects a $10,000 life insurance payout. Walter and some friends have plans to open a liquor store.
That is, if he can talk his mother, Lena (Greta Oglesby), into the investment. She has moral objections; beyond that, she has other ideas about how to use the money. Like buying a house in a nice neighborhood.
That idea is fine with Walter’s wife Ruth (Lanise Antoine Shelley), who is burned out on a life of scraping by. She’s desperate to have some pleasure in her life: “I want so many things it’s driving me crazy.” A house with a yard would be a good start.
Observing all this with a sassy mouth and an unimpressed eye is Walter’s sister Beneatha (a scene-stealing Brianna Woods), a thoroughly modern girl looking forward to a medical career and a life of the mind.
Finally there’s Walter and Ruth’s 10-year-old son, Travis (played in alternating performances by Reonans Nelson II and Carwin Cooper).
Act I is basically about the family awaiting the insurance money. Act II deals with their realization that moving into an all-white neighborhood might not be a slam dunk.
So deep is this cast that even the supporting players are able to make their marks.
Beneatha has two suitors, a preppy-ish rich kid (Donnovan Woods) and a Nigerian exchange student (Rufus Burns, whose Act II soliloquy may be the single best batch of dialogue in the show).
Needra Dixon is a hoot as the tenement’s chief gossip and busybody; Walter Coppage has a fine moment as a bringer of bad news about Walter’s big investment; Gary Neal Johnson puts a human face on what otherwise could be the play’s heavy role, the rep of a neighborhood group that wants to pay the Youngers top dollar NOT to move to their new home. (He’s so clueless he doesn’t know what it sounds like when he keeps dropping the phrase “you people.”)
Tech credits are first-rate, especially Antje Ellermann’s uber-realistic set, a modest living room and kitchen flanked by brick walls that, under the right lighting, become transparent, revealing bedrooms.
Great theatrical literature isn’t frozen in time. It finds ways to speak to a wide swath of people in a broad series of time and places.
The Rep’s “Raisin in the Sun” speaks loud and clear.