A Raisin in the Sun shines on the mainstage

A raisin in the spotlight

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Mercy Olajobi, Krystal Hall and Kiyaana Cox Jones gather in the Younger apartment.

Last week’s production of A Raisin in the Sun is without a doubt one of the best productions I have ever seen at Muhlenberg. Hard stop. No exceptions. But just saying that isn’t nearly enough to do justice to this gut-wrenchingly dramatic journey of a family stuck in an worn-down apartment. Now, there is no such thing as a piece of art without some sort of context, and when it comes to A Raisin in the Sun, it’s hard to think of another play with more significant context behind it. Director and Guest Artist Jeffrey Page has truly composed a dynamically heart-stopping show that is able to evoke an oscillating cacophony of emotions over only a few hours.

         A Raisin in the Sun (1950) was a landmark play in the history of our nation. It was the first play to be produced on Broadway written by an African American woman, Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry lived her life as a major civil-rights activist and later in life became active in the feminist and lesbian rights movements. It is said that Hansberry’s childhood mirrored her most famous production. In 1937, Hansberry and her family moved into an all-white Chicago suburb, where they were physically assaulted. They then sued and won the Supreme Court case three years later. This personal tie between Hansberry and her play comes through in the level of gritty, hardline realism that makes A Raisin in the Sun such a striking piece. The true impact of this show was certainly not lost on Page or any of the starring cast.

         The production revolved around the relationship between stand-out performers, interim assistant director of Multicultural Life division of Student Affairs Kiyaana Cox Jones as Lena Younger, or Mama and Jalil Robinson ’22 as Mama’s son Walter Lee Younger. Both Jones and Robinson exuded a larger than life presence that pulled the audience into the world of the production and forced us to live in that musty old apartment right along with them. As much as the trajectory of the play relies on the actions of Mama and Walter and the intricate relationship between them, the presence of Walter’s son Travis Younger, played by Messiah James Jones ’30 (Cox Jones’s son), raises the stakes in every interaction between Robinson and Jones to electrifying highs.

         The casting of this production was somewhat unique for a college show with the inclusion of Cox Jones, who is a very accomplished professional actress, producer and director, and her 12-year-old son Jones, who has already been acting for over 7 years. Jones as Travis served as an integral aspect of the production, providing occasional moments of levity with his youthful charm so the audience doesn’t suffocate under the intensity of some scenes and bringing just that extra level of realism where the 10-year-old character actually is a young, innocent child surrounded by adults and drudgery.

         Equal credit must also be given to the star performances from the rest of the Younger family with Nicole Morris ’21 as Mama’s daughter Beneatha Younger and Mercy Olajobi ‘21 as Ruth Younger, Walter Lee’s wife. Olajobi brought a constant through-line for the audience to follow during the production, fully bringing out the constant struggle Ruth faces against monotony whilst trying to keep the family together. 

Olajobi described her process in coming to terms with Ruth as working through the Younger family’s “experiences and all the struggles that they’ve been through and how they’re trying to stay hopeful throughout everything and move on and follow their dreams.”

         Morris as Beneatha marked a point of contrast against the casual demeanor and speech of the rest of the Younger family by always embodying the picture of a proud, African American woman in college with a dream and a self-destructive drive to get there. Morris explained the source of the seemingly endless energy she was able to expel in every action to truly entice the audience into connecting deeply with the sways of Beneatha’s emotions.

“[My energy comes from] the drive to tell the story, knowing that it’s an important story to tell and that people obviously aren’t alive today who couldn’t have told it anyway while they were alive, so being able to have the freedom to do it is the fuel I need to be the person to tell that story,” Morris said.

         But the main cast alone wouldn’t have been enough to bring about such a full and fleshed-out environment for the events of this production, not without an equally impressive supporting cast. Each of the supporting actors were able to bring forth the background and identity of their characters, representing facets of the world outside this apartment to the audience through their brief-but-meaningful interactions with the Younger family.

Probably the most charged and controversial of all side characters in A Raisin in the Sun is Karl Lindner, the representative from the Clybourne Park housing development that the Youngers seek to move into, played by Ozzy Smith ’22. In a production about the dreams of an African American family in the 1950s and their struggle against the dominant, white society, Smith needed to embody the timid and skittish but fundamentally prejudiced representation of the current status of racism in America. Smith describes his process working through all these factors.

“This process was very intense, especially my character being something that I hope people don’t agree with, but sadly, there [are] still people out there who do,” said Smith.

This production couldn’t have reached the dizzying heights it did without the tireless efforts and visions of director Page. The first scene of this version of A Raisin in the Sun could only be described as a champion of fluid directing, dynamically portraying the banter and routines of the Younger family which pulled the audience deceptively close to the lives of the characters. This production was not just a hyper-realistic sucker-punch of a show that forced the audience to bear witness to the atrocities of the past; it also possessed a wholly unique touch from Page. 

At various points throughout the show, disembodied remixes of contemporary music started to play, which pushed the audience out of the world of the play and into the audience’s reality whilst simultaneously pulling the world of the play into the world of the audience. Page described this choice, saying, “Music for me is the color of the frame; it is how I want to drop into this text … curating the music in direct confrontation with the text helps to paint a picture for the audience,” he continued. “I want people to engage with this text in a very contemporary way… I want people to understand how our current condition in 2020 [is] present in this script.”

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