"What happens to a dream deferred?" asks Langston Hughes in his poem "Harlem." "Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?/Or fester like a sore—/And then run?"
The main stage at New Stage Theater is now the inside of an old, worn-down apartment in Chicago. A pattern of purple grapes on a dark beige background repeats itself across the walls. Among the coffee table, record player and tarnished lamp, a high-backed chair sits to the left of a faded light blue couch and end table.
The setting of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" appears indistinct. However, when the play debuted on Broadway in 1959, the existence of such a setting was unprecedented. Hansberry designated the time of the play as anywhere between World War II and the present, accurately forecasting that the obstacles detering dreams would change little in the coming years.
"There had never been this glimpse into an African American family's living room (before Raisin)," says Francine Reynolds, artistic director for New Stage.
Not only does Hansberry's play bring the audience into the heart of the Younger family, but it also aptly spotlights how their dreams have outgrown the gender, racial and social roles into which they were born.
As the play opens, Mr. Younger, the patriarch of the family, has died, leaving an insurance check of $10,000, and the Youngers are at odds about how the money should be spent. Son Walter Lee (Beethovan Oden) curses his poverty-stricken life and believes that only money will allow him to better himself and his family. Daughter Beneatha (Naima Carter), has decided to go to medical school—an independent, ambitious choice that angers Walter Lee. His wife, Ruth (Joy Brashears), wants only to love and take care of her husband, but his discontent leads her to consider an abortion. Seeing her family falling apart, Mama Younger (Mary Tanksley-Jackson) puts a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood, believing that a strong family can overcome anything, including racial discrimination.
Since its debut, "A Raisin in the Sun" has been adapted into two different films and was brought back to Broadway in 2004, a powerful testament to the longevity of Hansberry's powerful script.
"The play is not dated, not antiquated," Reynolds says. "Materialism, working-class people struggling to get out, differences in generations—these themes are universal."
Reynolds chose to direct "A Raisin in the Sun" because she wanted to produce an American classic—a play that speaks to every person. And this is the true brilliance of Hansberry's script. The honesty in each scene surpasses social and racial context, and allows all audiences to identify with the characters.
"Each person is different, but we all experience the same moment, the same struggle," says actor Beethovan Oden of the play's scope.
Oden, a guest actor from New York City, portrays Walter Lee with such honesty that it's easy to forget he is acting. Walter Lee is an infuriating character, snarling contemptuously at the world. However, Oden plays him with a likeable sourness and accentuates his character's frustration with a distinct physical restlessness.
Oden's and Carter's performances as Walter Lee and Beneatha crackle with a sibling authenticity at turns comical and vicious, and Tanksley-Jackson delivers a calm, yet solid performance as the matriarch of the Younger family. Brashears, who plays Walter Lee's wife, Ruth, performs well within the dynamic of the other actors, but seems to lose definition when standing alone.
As the young, spirited Beneatha, Carter's performance is tight and energetic, emanating her character's determination and passion from every movement of her body, and Joei Smith gives a slick performance as Beneatha's patronizing, well-bred and well-spoken suitor, George Murchinson.
"A Raisin in the Sun" runs Oct. 17-20 and Oct. 24-27 at 7:30 p.m. Sun. matinees at 2 p.m., Oct. 20 and 28. Wed., Oct. 24, the audience can participate in a post-show discussion with the actors. Call 601-948-3531 for tickets. General admission, $22. Students and seniors, $18. Student rush tickets available one hour prior to curtain for $8 with a valid ID.