WTF Triumphs with Provocative 60th Anniversary Production of Raisin


Lorraine Hansberry was the first African-American woman playwright to be produced on Broadway and 60 years after its debut she remains the only one to have won the New York Drama Critics Circle award. The story of the Younger family Grandmother Lena (S. Epatha Merkerson), her son Walter Lee (Francois Battiste), his wife Ruth (Mandi Masden) and  their 10 year old son Travis (Owen Tabaka) and Lena’s daughter Beneatha (Nikiya Mathis) in their roach infested Chicago apartment (great set and lighting by Clint Ramos and Alex Jainchill respectively) waiting on their late father’s life insurance payout of $10,000 and their dreams of how it will transform their lives has become a classic of American theater and frequently taught and attended as the quintessential play of black experience. The new Williamstown Theatre Festival production with its brilliant director Robert O’Hara grabs you by the lapels and compel you to see this play as if experiencing the story for the first time right here, right now with eyes wide open and all you brought into the theater.

Francois Battiste as Walter Lee Younger and S. Epatha Merkerson as his mother, Lena, in “A Raisin in the Sun” at Williamstown Theatre Festival. (WTF publicity photo by Joseph O’Malley.”)

The play opens slowly, softly as dawn is breaking and the house is roused by Ruth trying to impose order on the brood who need to rise and get to the communal bathroom down the hall as quickly as they can so as not to lose their place and risk being late. This classic starts with nature’s call. O’Hara has injected a ferocious sense of urgency among his cast and overlapped a great deal of dialogue in the first act. Your ear quickly becomes attuned to the ebb and flow and you do not miss the sense of what’s being fought for as the play hurtles along like the elevated trains and I was surprised that I had never heard it sounding so fresh and current. This production tragically also gains great power by many of the topics that Ms. Hansberry took on in 1959 that are appallingly still so current from the racism, sexism, emotional and verbal abuse depicted to her portrayal of female sexuality and a woman’s right to choose.

The cast is uniformly excellent and the Younger family is superb. There are great supporting performances by Joshua Echebiri as Joseph Asagi, Kyle Beltran as George Murchison, Eboni Flowers as Mrs. Johnson, Joe Goldammer as Karl Lindner and Warner Miller as Bobo but Oh, the Youngers! All of them have enormous range of emotions and can climb the summit of hope, gasp in despair and tickle us with great charm and humor. Mandi Masden is stern, commanding and solicitous with her child bundling him off to school before mock mimicking him on his exit “I wouldn’t kiss that woman good bye for nothing in the world this morning!” earning a huge laugh and all that within her first ten minutes onstage and she hasn’t even dealt with Walter yet! Nikaya Mathis is sweetly appealing calmly taking her family’s guff for wanting to take guitar lessons to frighteningly rageful, climactically in a confrontation with her brother. S. Epatha Merkerson makes a welcome WTF return and dotes on her grandson and gifts her son a treasure to melt your heart while having an extraordinary confrontation with her daughter. Best of all is Francois Battiste who is lightening quick and by turns prideful, aggrieved and ferocious. His monologue about life as it is, the takers and the “tooken” will not be forgotten by anyone who sees it and that may well be far more audience than the limited run can accommodate thru 7/13 at Williamstown.

I can say no more about the production except it meets us where we are today and brings this 60 year old play to meet its ancestors at this radical moment in black theater as Wesley Morris described the shocking surge in young gifted and black theater that’s been happening in the past two years including the O’Hara helmed “Slave Play” by Jeremy O. Harris which is headed to Broadway this season. I would not be surprised to see this production join the Main Stem’s season along with previously announced titles from WTF-Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons,” “The Rose Tattoo” starring Marisa Tomei and “The Sound Inside” with Mary Louise Parker. It is a thrilling production!

8 performances Tues-Sunday

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