Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Saundra McClain

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 http://www.anoisewithin.org

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Ethics, Ethnicity, and Privilege: “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” at Sierra Madre Playhouse

Tamarra Graham as Shalita Burns meets, in her mind's eye, Leilani Smith and Jon Sprik as the characters in the memoir she is reading:

Tamarra Graham as Shalita Burns meets, in her mind’s eye, Leilani Smith and Jon Sprik as the characters in the memoir she is reading: “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” at SMP [Photo: Gina Long]


Although Thomas Gibbons’ play “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” has been billed as a story about cultural appropriation, the appeal underneath that essential concern is as large: the entire concept of literary ethics. As such, it plays not only to genuine and important concerns about who gets to tell stories tied thoroughly to a particular ethnic or cultural minority, but about all the angles authors have tried in desperation to get a work published. As such, even for those who would never think of embracing ethnic/cultural confusion, there are some very strong statements waiting at the core of the script.

As produced by Sierra Madre Playhouse, all of this comes fascinatingly to light. Well directed, well performed, and beautifully set, it becomes a show most definitely worth checking out.

Shelita Burns (Tamarra Graham) has joined a small publishing house as an editor, because they’ve given the green light to her quest to rediscover the lost voices of African American women authors long out of print, and create a series out of their works. Into that space has arrived a manuscript – a memoir of the life of a drifter, a woman who saw much of the South’s darkness, from Jim Crow forward. Her unique story has won a major non-fiction award, and though Burns had agreed that there would be no personal contact with Libby Price, the author, she decides to ignore this and give the award to Libby in person. This becomes its own rabbit hole, where it appears that nothing may be as has been assumed.

The arguments within the play – and for the audience – then stem from the tangled knot of knowledge and voice and empathetic response and even literary definition which evolve from what, at least initially, seems a pretty obvious concern. That very complexity – the fact that the play doesn’t try to make just a single point and slam it home – proves most satisfying. That, and the sheer quality of the production itself.

Graham makes her character at once deeply, emotionally connected to the work she is doing and ambitious enough to step outside her personal connection with the work she does to the greater rewards awaiting the success of the work she publishes. That balance, and the testing given to both parts, form the essence of the play. Olivia Cristina Delgado, as Shelita’s friend in the publishing business, underscores their elemental Gen-X-ness, and the business end of why a successful book is Shelita’s way forward.

Jon Sprik creates the dual characters of the Times reporter who makes Shelita voice her devotion to Libby’s work, and separate and distinctly develops the white man complicit in Libby’s story. Leilani Smith gives Libby – as narrator of the book she is credited with writing – an elemental warmth and earthiness which dances on the border between stereotype and genuineness, as the play demands.

SMP Artistic Director Christian Lebano provides the lynchpin to all of these characters as Sean, a writer living the under-appreciated life whose machinations bring Libby’s story to Shelita’s attention in ways which create every possible ethical question mark. By creating a character firm in his own unique understanding of the right, he provides Burns’ character with the ultimate foil, and underscores the complex nature of the questions the play has to ask.

Director Saundra McClain has set this episodic piece with a flow made possible by Christopher Scott Murillo’s multi-layered set, which allows the book’s characters to speak from behind a thin screen as those wrestling with the book’s content and future deal more concretely in the foreground. The seamlessness with which this story flows back and forth from the printed page to the modern understanding cements the power of the questions being asked.

In the end, “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” (the name comes from a quaint reference to the train stop beyond hell that someone who has done wrong may arrive at) will leave some in the audience with several levels of moral conundrums to discuss. As a writer, one sees several ethical lapses present in the narrative. Those with a closer connection to the culture being appropriated will find even more. Which are most important, or whether any are, will be the source of discussion after the play itself is done. But then, isn’t that one of the purposes of theater – to challenge one’s assumptions and leave room for change, doubt and revelation?

What: “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” When: through February 18, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with an additional matinee at 2:30 p.m. February 18. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth, $17 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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