Chike Johnson and Greta
Oglesby in The Milwaukee Rep's "A Raisin in the Sun." (photo by Michael Brosilow)
During opening-night intermission at The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s production of A Raisin in the Sun, two experienced theater professionals told me that they had never seen or read Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. I had to admit that I remembered only the basic premise from the time I read it 30 years ago. Even though it is considered a major work in the American canon, it is, for many, a play that is more known about than known.
It’s hard to image a better, more solid “introduction” to Raisin than the one that opened at The Rep this weekend. Ron OJ Parson and his cast captured the searing emotions behind the central story of the play, but also its rich texture, a snapshot of African-American experience in late 1950s America.
At the play’s center, there is the “volcanic” character of Walter Lee Younger (Chike Johnson), a man whose dreams have been “deferred” for so long that he bargains the family’s security to chase after a risky financial venture. But Hansberry surrounds this story with a wealth of characters and subplots: The precocious Beneatha (Mildred Maria Langford), who dreams of medical school and embraces new ways of thinking about her heritage and her place in the world; Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth (Ericka Ratcliff), who acutely feels the burden of the household and the challenges of the poor neighborhood; and, of course, Lena Younger, the mater familias whose fierce sense of tradition and family love holds things together through the most trying circumstances.
Parson’s relationship to the play goes back to one of his first acting experiences, when he played one of the bit parts at Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theatre. His familiarity and love for the play shines brightly.
His achievement here is to fully capture a play of near Shakespearean breadth and richness. There are moments of great joy and profound anguish, tenderness and emotional violence, sentimental comedy and harsh calamity. The height of anguish is dazzlingly expressed in Walter Lee’s rhapsodic speech near the end of the play, delivered by Johnson with unfettered emotional power. And there is also the quiet resolve in many of Lena’s understated moments, here captured with commanding understatement by Greta Oglseby.
So while many glibly think of Raisin in the Sun as a “message play” -- a story that exposes and condemns racism -- the Rep’s production shows it to be much more than that. Its greatness lies in its wide-ranging truths, and in the way it brings human struggles to vibrant life.