Review: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (Soulpepper)

by Ryan Kerr

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  Alison Sealy-Smith rocks!  And she is a perfect anchor as matriarch Lena Younger in Soulpepper’s A Raisin in the Sun. Were the rest of the production stripped bare save a lounge chair, a meek potted plant and Lena, I would have been satisfied.

You can imagine my elation when director Weyni Mengesha’s lavish production combined a period set with a collection of heartfelt performances.  I’m pretty sure my mouth hung open the entire night.

A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of the relationships between three generations of a poor black family surviving in a cramped two bedroom apartment in 1950s Chicago.  The play begins a few days before  head of the household Lena Younger is to receive a handsome life insurance cheque following the passing of her husband.  With  $10,000 on the way, the Younger Family is up in arms.

According to Lena’s daughter, Beneatha, it’s going to pay for her medical schooling.  According to Lena’s son, Walter Lee, it’s going to buy him a liquor store.  According to Lena’s daughter-in-law Ruth, it’s going towards a brick and mortar home, large enough to raise the entire family in comfort.  And yet, the $10,000 decision is Lena’s to make.

For those who didn’t read A Raisin in the Sun in high school, the play is a beautifully written piece of theatre in and of itself, but an even more fascinating time capsule if you imagine the climate in which it was originally written and produced.  Raisin was the first Broadway production by a female black playwright when it opened in 1959, and I imagine it opened to polite but tense applause, as the audience admitted the harsh reality present in the Younger Family’s predicament.

Perhaps that audience saw themselves to blame for the oppression the Youngers faced – they had sympathy for the desperate endeavours the family imagined with the beacon of ‘bacon’.

Mengesha’s version maintains some of this uneasiness.  Even today, the systemic factors that keep the Youngers in poverty remain, albeit in shrouded form.  It was surreal to witness such overt racism and despair as a modern Toronto viewer within the “arrested decay” Distillery Walls of the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

The set was breathtakingly true to the era, complete with functioning Fridgidaire, faucets, cooktop, and grammophone.  I felt so privileged (both senses) to be witnessing such fine performances in my comfy theatre chair, yet bearing witness to such raw suffering and such honest triumph.

And yet, A Raisin in the Sun isn’t about money, or class, or race.  It’s about the bonds within a family – despite clashing opinions and ambitions – and how they flex to make enough room for personal growth.

Highly recommended.

A Raisin in the Sun is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (Distillery District) until Nov 13
-Showtimes are Tues-Sat at 8pm with Wed/Sat 2pm Matinees
-Tickets are $31-$68
-Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 416.866.8666

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann: Charles Officer, Abena Malika, Alison Sealy-Smith, Bahia Watson.