'A Raisin in the Sun' to debut tonight

From left, Beneatha Younger (Danee Simmons) speaks her mind to Mama Lena Younger (Rena’ Tago Hicks) and Ruth Younger (Brenda Ray) in a scene from "A Raisin in the Sun." (Contributed photos by Barbara Parker)

February 27, 2015

The TheatreWorks cast is hoping, finally, for “A Raisin in the Sun” instead of an empty theater in the snow. 

Given the trials and tribulations the characters in Lorraine Hansberry’s play go through, the cast is used to rolling with the punches. The show, originally slated to open Feb. 20 and again Thursday, was postponed due to snow and now is set to open today.

The play about an African-American family debuted on Broadway in 1959. Storyteller, actor and director Fred Motley of Danville directs the local production. 

As the story unfolds, three generations of the Younger family are living cramped in a two bedroom Chicago apartment: Mama (Lena Younger, played by Rena’ Tago Hicks); her son, Walter Lee (Brian Witcher), and his wife, Ruth Younger (Brenda Ray), and their son, Travis (Keondre White); and Lena Younger’s daughter, Beneatha (Danee Simmons).

They’ve struggled with poverty, but things are about to change. Mama is getting $10,000 from her late husband’s life insurance. That can go a long way in the 1950s — but the family members have different ideas on how it should be spent. 

Beaten down by a demeaning job as a chauffeur to a wealthy white businessman, Walter Lee wants to own his own business by investing in a liquor store with his buddies. Beneatha, a college student, wants to go to medical school. Ruth is worried about a baby on the way.

As they debate over how the money should be spent, they talk about their problems. 

“Mama, I want so many things it’s like it’s driving me crazy,” Walter Lee says.

“Son, why do you talk so much about money?” she replies. 

“Because money is life,” he said.

She reminds him that life “is freedom.” The struggles she and her husband went through were much more basic and intense than the financial concerns and material desires her children have. “My children — how different we done become,” she bemoans. 

Meanwhile, Beneatha is analyzing assimilation versus getting to know her African roots, with two beaus offering starkly different options for her life. Her boyfriend, George (Christopher Mann), is a conservative, straight-laced wealthy young black man. Joseph Asagai (Jacovia Hairston), a college student from Nigeria, teaches her about life and customs in Africa.

Beneatha becomes interested in African culture. Wearing the traditional garments Mr. Asagai brings her, she dances to African music, and she cuts her hair short and lets it go natural. When George comes to pick her up for their date to the theater, he is appalled by the new clothes and especially the new way she wears her hair, which he calls “nappy.” 

Mama ends up buying a house in a white neighborhood — not to make any particular point, just because it was what she could afford. A neighborhood representative, Karl Lindner (Tom Berry), offers to buy her out of the contract so the black family won’t move in.

Mama gives the other two-thirds of the money to her son; half he should put in the bank for Beneatha’s college tuition, and the other half is for Walter Lee to use or invest as he sees fit. 

The story continues from there, with Bobo (Kelvin Perry) delivering some bad news.

Clif Jones designed the 1950s set, complete with an old-style refrigerator, metal sink and black-and-white family photographs. Karen Despot coordinated the retro costumes. Roslyn Simmons is the stage manager. Berry handles sound design, and Corbin Campbell is the artistic director. 

The cast is ready to roll, after losing their first week of scheduled performances to snow cancellations. “For me it’s like life throws you a curve ball, so whether or not you take it ... you just try to roll with it,” Ray said.

This production has more cast members from outside the Martinsville area than many past TheatreWorks shows. Perry is from Danville, where White is a third-grader, and Witcher lives in Rocky Mount. Hicks, from Danville, and Ray, from Greensboro, N.C., have been on stage together before, but the cast members mostly are new to working together, they said. They came together really well, Hicks said. 

This production has an original scene from “A Raisin in the Sun” that normally is not included in stage productions: The comic visit from busybody neighbor Mrs. Johnson (Naomi Hodge-Muse). “It was wise of Mr. Motley to put it in there to break the cloud” of the heavy topics “and give it (the production) a little levity for a moment or two,” Hodge-Muse said.

Walter Lee is trapped by frustrations of not being able to provide for his family the way he would like, though he sees an easier life through his employer’s experiences. “Walter Lee is just like we see in a lot of black families back then,” Witcher said. He “has the dream of bringing family to a better place.” 

The production will open at 7 tonight and will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets ($15) may be purchased at Piedmont Arts or through www.twcp.net.

All performances will be in the Black Box Theatre, 44 Franklin St., in uptown Martinsville. The production is sponsored by Daniel, Medley, and Kirby P.C., Attorneys at Law. 


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