How affecting it is to watch a great American play hang its hat on the exquisite melancholy of a single verb.
But there it is, in the first lines of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 masterpiece, “A Raisin in the Sun”: the invariant form of “to be,” a timeworn pattern of African-American speech marking the habitual, the continuous and, most of all, the enduring.
“All right, you just go ahead and lay there,” Ruth Younger calls out to her husband, Walter Lee, whose late-sleeping tendencies might disrupt household and bathroom routines on yet another Chicago workday morning.
“And, next thing you know, Travis be finished and Mr. Johnson’ll be in there, and you’ll be fussing and cussing ’round here like a madman!”
That tiny “be” — a linguistic indicator of simple, daily persistence.
Marking past, present and future all at once, this sweet, small relic of bygone English places us exactly where Hansberry wants us: face-to-face with the continuing ministrations of a family devoted to its history and one another but still dreaming about so much more.
But what of those dreams? Might they live only as endless, timeless possibilities, or even one day dry up, as Langston Hughes so poignantly wrote, “like a raisin in the sun”?
Like the impact of that peculiar, particular verb, Virginia Rep’s exemplary production of “A Raisin in the Sun” gives us plenty of time and space to stretch out and ponder where the Younger family has been, what it has come to and where it might be going.
As Ruth works to keep a humble home in order, Walter Lee mopes and complains about a wealthier world just beyond his grasp as he earns a living as a big-city chauffeur.
Walter’s unmarried, much-younger sister, Beneatha, dreams of one day becoming a doctor while grappling with her own constantly shifting sense of black identity and pride.
Walter and Beneatha’s mother, Lena, rounds out the household as the matriarch who holds wistful memories of the days when she and Walter Sr. first moved into the Woodlawn neighborhood apartment where the family still lives.
Now, with a $10,000 insurance payout due to Lena after the death of her husband, the family debates how best to handle the money.
A story haunted throughout by the portent of its own title, “A Raisin in the Sun” is at heart a study of human aspirations. How might we invest wisely in the future in order to secure a just return? Yet even as a happier future seems to draw near, might the dream of it remain always out of reach, leaving only dashed hopes and disappointment?
Jerold Solomon brings powerful and authentic presence to Walter Lee, who angles to invest the insurance money in a liquor-store venture, and Katrinah Carol Lewis perfectly balances Ruth’s air of regal purpose with her sense of growing frustration with her impatient husband.
Jasmine Coles nearly steals the show as the feisty and independent-minded Beneatha, and Trezana Beverley, as Lena, slowly comes to dominate everyone on stage as her character, the play’s action and its sense of risk rise to a fever pitch. Bru Ajueyitsi, Kevin Minor, Joseph Marshall and Doug Blackburn also do excellent work in a variety of important supporting roles.
At a full three hours with intermission, “A Raisin in the Sun” is too long by 20 minutes, and while director Tawnya Pettiford-Wates rightly savors each plot point and character digression, Hansberry’s script, written when the playwright was only in her 20s, sometimes overreaches by trying to ring every bell in the modern black experience.
But “A Raisin in the Sun,” pocked with grim wisdom yet filled with buoyant humor and delicious turns of phrase, has earned its length, breadth and depth. As a reflection and meditation on the African-American past, present and future, it serves as the dramatic gold standard, and like the humble and enduring invariant “be” itself, it will always stand the test of time.