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Intimate, Engaging “A Raisin in the Sun” at A Noise Within

Saundra McClain as Lena Younger [Photo:Craig Schwartz]

By any measure, Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” is an essential part of the canon of American plays, but its messages prove especially needed in our current climate. In 1959, it became the first straight play by an African-American to appear on Broadway. It chronicles a decisive period in the life of the Younger family in post-World War II Chicago, and the dreams which grew out of or were squelched by that time, that place and that family.

Now a new and sparkling production at A Noise Within contains a specific intimacy which allows the many messages of the play to rise in rich moments of character and place. A strong piece with a strong and talented cast, it carries inside it the innate nobility of people who have risen up from darkness and can see – can just see – the light up ahead.

Saundra McClain leads the cast as Lena, the Younger matriarch. There is a passionate decisiveness in McClain’s Lena which gathers her clan – even those feeling caged by it – into a close-knit unit for which she is the foundation. Ben Cain makes the impulsive, ambitious and sometimes foolish Walter Lee an interesting balance of hope and anger, and shows in subtle carriage shifts the moments when a more cohesive manhood becomes a part of him.

Toya Turner makes Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth, move with that particular kind of tired which comes from swimming up stream all the time, as she wrestles between despair and the potential for promise. Perhaps most entertaining to watch is the energy of Sarah Hollis, whose Beneatha – the younger sibling working toward becoming a doctor – becomes a symbol of the coming generation, with its desire to reconnect with cultural roots and its push against the very things which have both sustained those working to rise and possibly kept them from rising.

As one of the two men Beneatha dates, Keith Walker radiates the privilege which creates class differences even among those fighting for recognition from the larger community. Amir Abdullah, by sheer carriage, exhibits in the African student the command of a person unburdened by the legacy of American slavery. Bert Emmett makes the white man with awkward news more of a product of his time than a villain, and as the youngest Younger, Sam Christian exhibits a genuine innocence which becomes the reason for so many others’ strivings.

Director Gregg T. Daniel has choreographed this production as much as directed it, creating intertwining patterns of love and frustration, of hopeful striding and heart-wrenched staggers, all in service of a genuineness which radiates a special kind of truth. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s set uses the the thrust A Noise Within stage to make the small apartment both restrictive and connected to the audience in important ways.

In short, the production at ANW is not to be missed. If you have seen this play many times you will not be disappointed in this version. If you have never seen it, take the chance to introduce yourself. It is, indeed, part of the canon and particularly apt in this fraught period in our history.

“A Raisin in the Sun” plays in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Henry V”.

What: “A Raisin in the Sun” When: through April 8, 2 p.m. March 11, 17, 25, 31, April 7 and 8; 7 p.m. March 11, 25 and April 8; 7:30 p.m. March 17, 15 and 29; 8 p.m. March 16, 17, 30, and April 7 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25, student rush $20, “pay what you can” March 14, 7:30 performance Info: (626) 356-3121 or

Looking Back With Disquiet: “Clybourne Park” at the Taper

(L to R) Damon Gupton, Crystal A. Dickinson, Annie Parisse and Jeremy Shamos in the Mark Taper Forum's Clybourne Park

One of the seminal plays of the civil rights era was Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” detailing – among other things – the struggle of the Youngers, an African American family in Chicago, to leave their downtrodden neighborhood. At the end, they pack up despite objections from their new white neighbors, and head for the middle class enclave of Clybourne Park.

Playwright Bruce Norris’ modern response to Hansberry’s tale, “Clybourne Park” brings to the Mark Taper Forum an examination of both the changes fifty years have brought in attitudes, and the underlying tensions of property, history and sheer insensitivity which still divide. In the process the play proves uncomfortable, funny, touching, explosive and richly challenging. It can be both humorous and disquieting to acknowledge the social tensions liberal America tends to feel have evaporated which have, rather, gone underground.

The first act looks at the Hansberry story from the other side, as we meet the family moving out so the Youngers can move in. Russ and Bev are packing up to leave, unable to cope with events which have taken place in the house. Their maid helps them pack and copes with the obvious lack of understanding her employers have about her life – a life she keeps so intentionally separate she is upset at her husband’s willingness to volunteer help in the labor involved with emptying a house. Soon the family is joined by the vapid but ineffectual local minister, and by Karl – the Hansberry character who tried to talk the Youngers out of buying in this neighborhood – now trying to talk Russ out of selling to an African American, even as he hovers over his own pregnant, deaf wife.

The second act, fifty years later, revisits the now derelict house, which Lindsey and Steve intend to tear down in order to build a new one in this gentrifying, formerly African American neighborhood. In a meeting involving development agency and architectural representatives, the authors of a neighborhood committee bent on preservation, including a Younger relative, face off over yet another potential change, all the while construction workers unearth essential facts of the house nobody may ever care to see.

The joy of this play is the crafted humanity of its characters. Each is trying to be nice to the other. Each is dealing with pent frustrations which bubble over in ways they neither expect nor can control. Yet, you end up in sympathy with them all, even those whose dated ideas or Starbucks liberalism prove deeply, spiritually out of tune.

The cast, which doubles in the 1959 and 2009 parts, provides a striking ensemble. Director Pam MacKinnon has created a community on the stage for each act, with the kind of careful timing which seems totally natural even as it is pinpoint precise. Frank Wood and Christina Kirk’s interplay as Russ and Bev swell with the underlying emotional struggle of leaving difficult history, and one’s sense of belonging, behind. Jeremy Shamos gives both the vibratingly anxious Karl and the earnestly myopic yuppie Steve such independent individuality it is sometimes difficult to believe they are played by the same person.

Crystal A. Dickinson brings practical dignity to the maid surrounded by the casual racism of an age, and an intensity of purpose to the young woman determined to do what she can to save her own heritage. Likewise, Damon Gupton gives the servant’s amiable husband a kind of relaxed dignity in the face of a stratified society, and his more modern counterpart a quietly suspicious sense of self.

Brendan Griffin offers up the more vapid characters: the minister who has no idea how to salve the deep wounds which are making Russ and Bev leave, and the detached planner focused on contracts while the meeting around him explodes. Annie Parisse also provides two characters of such distinct individualism it is startling to think they are performed by the same person, as first the deaf woman isolated from her rather clueless neighbors and then as the young woman profoundly excited to revitalize a run-down neighborhood.

Daniel Ostling’s evocative set works wonderfully, down to just the right period wallpaper. Ilona Somogyi’s terrific costumes provide an instant telegraph of period and relationship which speeds understanding and enriches the whole.

“Clybourne Park” will not be the easiest play you will see, but perhaps the most telling. You may laugh, or you may gasp as one after another the cherished assumptions about another age and about our own are taken out and examined with a microscope. Interestingly, this may play best when examined next to the Hansberry original. A fine production of “A Raisin in the Sun” is playing at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City with just that juxtaposition in mind. Savor both, and then take your friends out to dinner and let the discussions begin.

What: “Clybourne Park” When: Through February 26, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

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