'A Raisin in the Sun,' Now at Ensemble Theatre, Continues to Resonate 60 Years After Debut

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click to enlarge 'A Raisin in the Sun,' Now at Ensemble Theatre, Continues to Resonate 60 Years After Debut
Photo by Aimee Lambes
Written by the great Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun debuted in 1959 and was the first play written by an African-American woman to be performed on Broadway. Some six decades later, it remains as vital and vibrant as ever, which shows both how incisive and compassionate Hansberry's work was and also how little we've come since then. It's also why you should be sure to catch Ensemble Theatre's production, which runs through Feb. 17th.

Set in the South Side of Chicago during segregation in the 1950s, the play features three generations an African American in the pre-Civil Rights era, struggling to get by, stuck in a tiny apartment. Walter Lee Younger (Eugene Sumlin) wants to make a better life for his family, although his half-baked ideas for improving their lot often include dreams that he knows may be out of reach and money that their family has never seen. Plus, he's got an alcohol habit he can't kick. Ruth Younger, Walter Lee’s Wife (played by Nicole Sumlin, who is married to the actor who plays her husband) knows of her husband’s plans but is otherwise busy looking after their son and the household, while working as a domestic worker for a white family.

Lena Younger (Angela Winbourn), mother of Walter Lee and his sister Beneatha (Zyrece Montgomery), is just trying to keep the family together after the death of her husband, while attempting to understand why her children need life to be so much different than how she had it. Zyrece Montgomery’s performance as Beneatha is the performance that really stands out, with a mixture of buoyancy and subtlety as the eccentric, liberated medical student, who is still trying to find herself.

Hansberry, who tragically died at the age of 34 of cancer, remains the real star of the show, as the powerful script maintains its cultural and societal relevance. While the plot goes along with some twists and turns, the themes of financial restraints between a family, the misunderstandings from one generation to a next in an ever-changing society, and systemic racism still very much resonate today, which gives the play a universality that explains why it’s still being performed in this, it’s 60th year of production. Yes, segregation has technically ended, but not really.

Director Celeste Cosentino, who wears many hats at Ensemble, added some music before and after each set that perfectly fit the mood and overall ambience of the play. Nina Simone’s “In the Morning” played, along with Roberta Flack’s cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Aretha Franklin’s cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come."

The costumes (Kayla Davis) and set design (Walter Boswell) are effective in transporting us back in time to the era that the play takes place in.

The rest of the cast features Easton Sumlin, son of actors Eugene and Nicole, playing their on-stage son Travis in an often hilarious manner; Leilani Barrett showing off his deep pipes and commanding stage presence as Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian gentleman trying to gain the love of Beneatha; in addition to Nnamdi Okpala as George Murchison, Bobby Williams as Bobo and Chris Bizub as Karl Linder.

The runtime of 2 hours and 45 minutes feels a tad long, but when the alternative is passing on the production altogether, the investment is an easy choice. 
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