Do you know what you’re missing if you haven’t planned to see A Raisin in the Sun at the Omaha Community Playhouse? It’s the start of something very big 60 years ago that lives as large and fresh today.
It’s the story of an African-American family in Chicago that shares the universal dream of a better life. A life insurance check from her husband’s death would let Lena Younger move from their rundown apartment to a nice neighborhood where whites aren’t welcoming. It could also help her daughter Beneatha attend medical school, but her brother Walter wants the money to invest in a liquor store.
Playwright Lorraine Hansberry took her title from a Langston Hughes poem that asked, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does if dry up like a raisin in the sun?” It was the first play by an African-American woman to open on Broadway, and its historic legacy kept growing for more than a half century.
Walter would come to be played by Sidney Poitier and later by the likes of Danny Glover and Denzel Washington on stage and film. The original director, Lloyd Richards, would head the legendary Yale drama school and would mentor and direct for the greatest black playwright August Wilson.
When the Playhouse first performed it in the 1960s, Yvonne Johnson won the top acting award as Lena Younger in a cast that won rave reviews. Now Mama Younger wins even more distinctive applause for Karen Fox, acting in her stage debut with an authenticity matched by the rest of her more experienced stage family.
And another historical footnote is added by Tyrone Beasley as director. While his more famous father, John Beasley, has starred at the Playhouse in the likes of Driving Miss Daisy, Tyrone’s vast array of theater credits has not included the Playhouse. He now earns serious consideration for season-ending awards thanks to his winning such evenly convincing performances from a cast including several making Playhouse debuts.
While there wasn’t a weak link in the ensemble, Donte Lee Plunkett’s treatment of Joseph Asagai, a philosophical Nigerian student, had special appeal to this reviewer. I’m writing this on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and regret not seeing in The Mountaintop where he played MLK, but did see him in Of Mice and Men. So I’ve seen enough to convince me he can disappear completely into any role he tackles.
David Terrell Green as Walter, Olivia Howard as Beneatha and even eighth-grader Brodhi McClymont carried their share of the story with appealing ease. Perhaps the most sympathetic character, however, was Faushia R. Weeden, the strong wife of the ambitious Walter. She managed to stand up to his weaknesses while staying loyal to her man until he comes to his senses and reclaims his manhood.
It’s not always clear how credit should be shared between a cast and the director but comments by Beasley and his inexperienced leading lady, Karen Fox, suggest its fair to praise them equally for her performance. But given his rich background with the Beasley theater and the August Wilson cycle of plays, it’s clear what he brought to the table this time.
And it’s a wonderful mystery that Karen Fox could bring such a natural matriarch to life in her stage debut.
A Raisin in the Sun runs through Feb. 9 at the Omaha Community Playhouse Hawks Mainstage, 6915 Cass St., with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $24 adults, $16 students, available at ticketomaha.com or by calling 402.553.0800.