Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe artistic director Nate Jacobs has wanted to present the musical version of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun for years—even longer than the theater company has been around. And audiences in town, where there has not (in my memory) been a local production of the Tony-winning show since it first bowed in 1973, may have been waiting, too.
Money (as in royalty payments for the show rights) was long the sticking point, but now, with WBTT on a strong financial footing, the time is right for the current production of Raisin. And in more ways than one, for the issues of racial and gender equality that dominate the play are just as much in the news today as back in 1951, when the play is set.
But love, family and dreams are at the heart of Raisin, too. The black Younger family, long dwelling in a cramped Chicago apartment, have a chance to buy a real home (albeit one in a white neighborhood, Clybourne Park) thanks to an insurance check paid out at the father’s death. Mama Lena (Jannie Jones) and daughter Beneatha (Kiara Hines) want the hope for a new life the home promises. But son Walter Lee (Brian L. Boyd) desperately longs to partner on buying a liquor store, so he can quit his job as a chauffeur for a white man. Daughter-in-law Ruth (JoAnna Ford) is torn between wanting to move and wanting her husband to find his self-worth. And their young son Travis (Samuel Waite) is uncertain about leaving the only home he’s ever known.
In the play from which Raisin is derived, the action takes place within the Younger apartment. But the musical (with book written by Hansberry’s ex-husband Robert Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg, and songs by Judd Woldin and Robert Brittan), moves beyond those walls, employing an ensemble cast and energetic dance numbers (choreographed by director Jim Weaver) to place us more in the place, the time, the overall environment in which not just the Youngers but other black Americans struggle.
The WBTT production also moves along swiftly thanks to a bare minimum of set and props (although it sometimes feels a little random as to what props we see and what are left to the imagination). And Weaver has a cast of fine singers to deliver songs (under the musical direction of Brennan Stylez) that range from tender (“Sweet Time,” “A Whole Lotta Sunlight”) to angry (“You Done Right”) to sarcastic (“Not Anymore,” which has Ruth, Walter and Beneatha reacting to the white neighbors’ attempts to buy them out). Ford’s voice soars easily on “Sweet Time,” Jones’ is impassioned on “Measure the Valleys,” Boyd’s filled with urgency on “Runnin’ to Meet the Man” and “It’s a Deal”), and Hines’ and William Tipton’s (as her Nigerian love interest) touching on “Alaiyo.”
A creative “African Dance” number does much to enliven the latter half of the first act, and a gospel number, “He Come Down This Morning,” does the same for Act II. The score overall, for those unfamiliar with it, is surprisingly strong and engaging at first hearing.
Perhaps the only real criticism I have of Raisin is that too often the direction and acting feel overwrought, as if everyone is trying too hard to reach us. That’s not necessary, for the characters, the story and the songs have enough power already without stretching to grab our emotions.
Raisin continues through Nov. 11; for tickets call 366-1505 or visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.