Story: Walter Lee Younger Jr. shares a cramped, dilapidated apartment on Chicago’s South Side with his wife Ruth, his son Travis, his mother Lena and his sister Beneatha. While his wife and mother accept their poverty and their lot in life, Walter Lee chafes at his suffocating situation. He has big plans for going into business as the co-owner of a liquor store with his friends Bobo and Willie. Those plans will cost money, but Walter Lee is anticipating a big check from his late father’s insurance company on Walter Sr.’s life insurance policy.
Lena, however, disapproves of her son’s scheme. After all, he already has a job as a chauffeur, while Lena (“Mama”) and Ruth clean houses for wealthier people. When the check arrives, Mama at first enrages Walter Jr. by taking $3,500 of the $10,000 and using it as down payment on a little home in suburban Claybourne Park. She entrusts Walter Jr. with the remainder to invest some and save the rest for his sister’s medical school tuition. When Walter Jr. uses the money for his own plans that turn from dreams to tragedy, he looks at a new opportunity: A representative from the Clybourne Park neighborhood association has visited with the promise of paying the Youngers a profitable price to keep the black family out of its all-white neighborhood.
Highlights: Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning drama in 1959 was based on her own father’s law suit in Chicago to move his family into a neighborhood similar to Clybourne Park years earlier. Ironically, Clybourne Park, the 2010 Tony Award-winning drama that looks at the Younger’s move from the perspective of the family who sold the house to them, opens October 24 at The Rep.
Other Info: J. Samuel Davis anchors the Unity Theatre Ensemble presentation with a heart-rending portrayal of Walter Lee Jr. Davis pulls no punches in depicting the unattractive elements of his character, yet also conveys the stifling conditions that tear at Walter Lee’s heart and soul. It’s a truly tragic character, and not a very sympathetic one in how Walter Lee treats his wife and sister, but Davis has the power to compel attention to Walter Lee’s plight.
Herman Gordon offers a good turn in the brief role of Bobo, who delivers terrible news to the Younger household about Walter’s friend Willie. Bonnie Harmon convincingly portrays the stern, religious Lena who demands respect for God and protocol in her own home. Don McClendon delights as the Nigerian student, Joseph Asagai, who befriends Beneatha and offers a different philosophical viewpoint to life in materialistic America.
Olivia Neal is fine as the ambitious Beneatha, with her eyes on the prize as a future physician even as she backs down from her mother’s domineering ways. Shaunda Gordon offers solace and support as Walter Lee’s long-suffering wife Ruth, while Carl Overly plays the stuffy and successfully ‘assimilated’ black businessman and Beneatha’s boyfriend George Murchinson.
Greg Matzker portrays the deceptive emissary from Clybourne Park with too much nervousness for the racially strident era, Karen Matkins is a bit excessive as nosy neighbor Mrs. Johnson and Kyshun Clark-Templeton has fun as young Travis.
Ralph Greene directs in languid fashion, where a bit firmer guidance and livelier pace might have elicited more polished results. Bill Murphy designed the appropriately forlorn apartment, L.D. Lawson-Mixon provides lighting, Willie Obermoeller adds sound and the costumes are designed by Harmon with Matzker’s assistance.
Unity Theatre’s presentation of Hansberry’s landmark drama offers an interesting prelude to The Rep’s upcoming version of the recent Tony Award-winning Clybourne Park.
Play: A Raisin in the Sun
Group: Unity Theatre Ensemble
Venue: Ivory Theatre, 7622 Michigan Avenue
Dates: October 26, 27, 28
Tickets: $21-$25; contact 925-9699 or utensemble.org
Rating: A 2.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.