Watching the gripping, outstanding new production of the classic, “A Raisin in the Sun” at Playcrafters Barn Theatre got me thinking – why can’t more local theaters do better in representing minorities on stage?
Just 13 years after Playcrafters last mounted the renowned 1959 Lorraine Hansberry story, we’re brought back into the cramped Chicago apartment of the African-American Younger family, where three generations are wrestling with their dreams and limits in life. But like all great literature or theater, “A Raisin in the Sun” isn’t a dramatic tale of just one demographic; it’s an exhilarating lesson of what it means to be human.
When her deceased husband’s insurance money comes through (a long-awaited $10,000 check in the early ‘50s), Mama Lena dreams of moving to a new home and a better neighborhood in Chicago, while her son, Walter Lee, a chauffeur, yearns to buy a liquor store and be his own man, and his sister Beneatha wants to go to medical school.
The stakes climb as questions about identity, class, value, race, and love become urgent issues, and outsiders make it impossible to forget the world of discrimination the Younger family cannot seem to escape.
While Playcrafters director Gaye Shannon-Burnett writes in the program that the homey set was designed to reflect the trapped nature of family members living on top of each other (10-year-old Travis sleeps on the couch), there still is a good deal of space on the upper kitchen level. The characters feel trapped not just by physical surroundings but by their station in life.
The central conflict of the plot is what Lena (a tremendously powerful Teresa Moore) will do with the insurance money, pulled in different directions by her strong-willed kids, Walter and Beneatha.
Ashley Harris (who was in last year’s Playcrafters cast of August Wilson’s “Piano Lesson”), is a dynamic, forceful Walter, with whom any man could identify.
He is pleading and desperate, longing to escape from under his submissive role and take charge of his own destiny. Harris’s frustrations are palpable as he feels unsupported by his own family, and his scenes of anger and lashing out are heartbreaking.
Conversely, he pleasantly dominates the action in Act II as he gleefully reminisces about being in a jazz club (with mood music in the background), then later brings his wife Ruth flowers and flirtatiously dances with her as a record plays.
Nichole Payney is a solid anchor as Ruth, a no-nonsense, harried mom trying to keep her household together as intense forces batter it, beyond her control.
2022 Rock Island High graduate Raja Mims is a revelation as the college-age Beneatha, Walter’s rebellious sister. Anyone who’s just out of school can relate to her, as she stands up to her elders and romantic suitors, and stakes out the best path for her young life.
Beneatha raises the ire of her Mama when she questions the existence of God, and gets a stern, withering look from Moore, who slaps Mims. It’s one of many instances in the story where the imposing Moore serves as the moral authority who dares not be questioned, but we later learn she is struggling like the rest.
Mims also tries on her African heritage as Beneatha dates the Nigerian Joseph Asagai, played with courtly, inspiring good nature by Anthony Mitchell. It’s another way a Younger decides what they want to be when they get older.
Faced with prejudice
The focal conflict of “A Raisin in the Sun” comes in the second half, when the family meets a representative of the white neighborhood association where Lena wants to buy a house.
The surface cordiality of Karl Lindner (Chris Zayner) belies the racism of his message, when he basically tells the family they’d be better off living with their own kind, and offers to buy the house back from them. While claiming prejudice doesn’t enter into it, Lindner says people always feel more comfortable with others of the same background.
That insult is compounded by a disaster in how part of the insurance money is used. The brilliance of “A Raisin in the Sun” partly stems from how this family retains its dignity and strength, how they face nearly insurmountable obstacles, and keep dreaming big.
The strong Playcrafters cast includes Luann Sick, DeMario Rankin, Kermit Thomas and Bralan Reynolds.
We need more like this
The triumph of this new production also lies in the fact that Playcrafters seems to do a better job of reflecting racial diversity in its casts and crews, over several years, than most Q-C theaters. Why is this?
In 2008, Playcrafters launched a diversity initiative, which pledged to do a Black-themed production every year for three years (more have been done since). And Teresa Moore – as director of this past February’s “The Odd Couple” – hired an African-American Felix, a female poker player, and for the Pigeon sisters one Black and one white, among the cast.
“It was very intentional. When you tell a story, it doesn’t have to be about color,” she said recently. “They acted well. It’s all about acting, all about telling a story.”
Clearly, there are talented actors of color throughout the region – who also have performed at Circa ’21, Mockingbird on Main, and The Black Box, among others – so it’s not like local theaters are starved for qualified minority candidates.
With the help of a Quad City Arts grant and two professional facilitators, QC Music Guild held a 90-minute discussion last October on improving diversity, equity and inclusion in area theaters. Have things really improved?
One focus of Music Guild’s strategic plan is increasing the level of meaningful and sustained outreach to diverse populations in the community.
“While QCMG is open to all members of our community, it is obvious that the makeup of our volunteers and patrons does not reflect the makeup of our community as a whole,” board president Jen Sondgeroth has said. “We identified this as a glaring organizational need. It was clear, through our process, that prior attempts to reach out to marginalized and under-represented groups have been project-based and short term, which has caused pain. We knew we had to get to work.”
Here’s hoping that work continues, and we can see more stories and productions that more accurately reflect the QC population, like the current one at Playcrafters.
“A Raisin in the Sun” continues next Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., at 4950 35th Ave., Moline. Tickets ($15, $13 for military and seniors) are available at 309-762-0330 or visiting the Playcrafters website.