A lot of “firsts” were achieved when Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway in 1959. It was the first time Broadway produced a play written by a Black woman and the first Broadway show helmed by a Black director.
Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse has been attempting to mount a production for the last few years. The challenges in casting a show requiring 10 of 11 roles to be performed by actors of color, compounded by the pandemic, led to several postponements. The curtain has finally gone up on the playhouse’s Monroe Stage, with a production scheduled to run through Mar. 26.
It was worth the wait.
Three generations of the Younger family occupy a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Chicago. Mama Lena (KT Masala) is awaiting an insurance settlement from the passing of her husband. Her adult son, Walter Lee (Terrance Smith), is tired of his life as a chauffeur and sees the money as an opportunity to move up and own a business. Her daughter, Beneatha (Amara Lawson-Chavanu), dreams of medical school.
Mama Lena wants no part of Walter Lee’s business proposition and decides to use a portion of the settlement to put a down payment on a home, a decision supported by Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth (Ash’Lee P. Lackey). Eschewing the cheaper-built but more expensive homes available in Black neighborhoods, Lena chooses a home in a white development. This prompts a visit from Karl Lindner (Jeff Coté) of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. It seems the neighbors want to buy Mama out, which may become necessary due to some poor choices on Walter Lee’s part.
First time director Leontyne Mbele-Mbong makes an impressive directorial debut here. The wide casting net thrown throughout Northern California landed an impressive troupe led with a blistering performance by Smith and a moving one by Lackey. Masala was clearly struggling with some lines, but delivered in her most powerful scenes. Lawson-Chavanu’s character may be the most dynamic, as the agent through which Hansberry raises the issue of assimilation, courtesy of two distinct suitors (Rodney Fierce and Mark Anthony).
The genius of A Raisin in the Sun is that Hansberry has the audience identify with the universal challenges faced by the Younger family and then exposes them to the additional weight imposed by systemic and “casual” racism. It’s both a heart-wrenching family drama and a social commentary.
It’s a terrific production of a great American play.
‘A Raisin in the Sun’ runs through March 26 on the Monroe Stage at 6th Street Playhouse, 52 W. 6th St., Santa Rosa. Thurs-Sat., 7:30pm; Sat-Sun, 2pm. $22–$43. 707.523.4185. 6thstreeetplayhouse.com.