LOGAN — As a former student of Utah State University, I always love a chance to go up to my beautiful former home. Located in downtown Logan is the picturesque Caine Lyric Theatre. Two of the plays that are being produced this year by the Lyric Repertory Company are related to one another. A Raisin in the Sun is a classic play for every theatre major to study. The other play, Clybourne Park, is written to immediately follow the action of A Raisin in the Sun’s dramatic conclusion. Director Eric Ruffin was brought in specifically for this project by the Lyric’s artistic director Richie Call.
A Raisin in the Sun was written by Lorraine Hansberry and was the first play written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway when it debuted in 1959. It is a play that takes an intimate look inside the lives of a black family living in a small apartment in Chicago in the 1950s. The name of the play is based on a poem by Langston Hughes that asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” While the production stays true to the era in which it was written, the themes of the play ring out as universal and relevant to a modern audience in our own world of anxieties.
The set designed by Jon Savage is intricate and detailed. The wallpaper is peeling along the seams and has water stains across it. The furniture is all faded and the height of the walls, as well as a city mural beyond, all make the actors seem like they are being squeezed in by their dingy surroundings. It is an excellent blend of drab colors and weathered craftsmanship setting the scene. I particularly liked the addition by lighting designer Steven R Piechocki and sound designer Bryan Z Richards of commercials from the 1950s that embody the ideal, “American dream.” At the very center of the set is a picture of Mr. Younger, who passed away before the play begins but who remains an imposing presence throughout the play.
The play opens on a small boy, Travis Younger (Kai Sargent), who is sleeping on the couch, because he has no space for himself. He is awakened by his mother, Ruth Younger (Alaina Dunn), and hurried on his way to the shared bathroom off stage. Dunn is subtle and consistent in showing that her character is tired and not feeling well as she goes about her required tasks of getting her son and husband, Walter Lee Younger, out the door. It is quickly learned that everyone in the small apartment is eagerly awaiting a check that will be arriving that day.
The check is a life insurance payout being sent to Mr. Younger’s widow, and matriarch of the family, Lena Younger. Lena, known as “Mama” (Kim Bey), wants to use this money to take care of her children and grandchildren by buying them a house and putting money aside for her daughter, Beneatha Younger (Amanda Morris), to continue her medical degree. Mama says God, “did give us children to make them dreams seems worth while.” Bey is moving as a God-fearing woman who is staying strong through the turmoil of losing her husband and who seems disconnected from her children by a generational breakdown. Mama’s talk about her dreams, which she defines as freedom, touched me. This dream of freedom includes having a house and keeping her children safe from the worries of her time, which had included a constant threat of violence and degradation.
Unfortunately, Mama’s dreams are not enough for her son, Walter Lee, played resplendently by Jeremy Keith Hunter. Walter obviously feels that he is now the man of the house since the passing of his father. Walter is given many fascinating layers throughout the play. Hunter’s performance is breathtaking as he explores Walter’s vision of the American dream and what it means to be a proud black man. I was brought to tears during the final act as Walter wrestled with degrading himself for the money that his family needed and as he figured out how to stand up with pride for his heritage and how to compose profound dignity to show his son, Travis, what manhood looks like.
While much of the play is about Walter exploring his identity as a black man striving for his dream, the play also focuses intently on the women in the family. Mama is the head of the family, but Walter’s wife and sister also play critical roles. Walter’s sister, Beneatha, is fascinating as she pursues her own dream of being a doctor while dating two very different men. Her suitors, Joseph Asagai (Isaiah Reed) and George Murchison (Jaylen Scott Wilson) present very different paths for Beneatha. Morris as Beneatha is strong and proud as she wrestles with what it means to be an African American woman. Is assimilation good or bad? Should she feel pulled to return to Africa with Joseph Asagai, or is money and security in an American dream what she should strive for?
After seeing this production, I completely understand why it was required reading in my college courses, and I wish all high school, college, and lifetime learners had the opportunity to see this stunning rendition. The costume design, by Moyenda Kulemeka, is beautifully rendered in 1950s clothes, making it like looking back in time on this family in turmoil. The play is full of symbolism and themes that could be discussed for hours and that are related to current events. The actors take the scripts and bring it to life, giving their characters dimension.
I only add a slight caution to seeing this production. It was written in a time where the terms “colored” and “negro” were common, and those terms are used throughout the play. There is also a use of the “n” word. The only white character in the play uses terms like “son,” “you people,” and “our people.” Young audiences would not understand the intensity of this hurtful discourse and its repercussions. The Old Lyric is taking a risk mounting this production, and I hope they are rewarded abundantly. Lyric Rep has brought in an incredible director and cast of actors to raise poignant questions in the hearts and minds of the audience.
The poem by Langston Hughes begs the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” and concludes with another resounding question, “does it explode?” This play feels vitally relevant in our tense atmosphere. Many people are wrestling, just like Walter Lee, with what kind of dreams we should have for ourselves and for our children. Just like the poem, I am left hanging full of questions after watching this remarkable production.