There is a reason why Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” is such a seminal work. Her insightful way of using everyday problems and conversations to reveal how racism and colonialism impact the psyches of Black Americans remains, for better or worse, as shockingly relevant to 21st century America as it was in 1959.
Of course, the lifeblood of Hansberry’s piece is the connection between the members of the Younger family, and in that respect the production of “A Raisin in the Sun” that is currently running at Marietta’s Theatre in the Square does right by Hansberry. The relationships are all there, brought to life by a lively group of actors, each of whom is perfectly suited to their role.
Mionne Destiny embodies Ruth Younger, the downtrodden but good-natured housewife of the household, while director Emil Thomas provides an excellent counterpoint as Walter Lee Younger, whose uncontainable ambition is a constant headache to his more realistically minded wife. Yesenia Ozuna is a charming Beneatha, whose intellectual journey into anti-assimilationism is looked on with confusion from her family. Princess Starr rounds out the core cast as Lena Younger, the matriarch of the family whose wisdom and experience serves as the binding force that keeps the Youngers together despite their dysfunction.
The performances feel like a breath of fresh air, bringing such a warm and inviting energy that you feel as though you could just listen to the Youngers talk to each other for the entire runtime without ever worrying about the actual events of the plot. The smaller dimensions of the Theatre in the Square give the play an intimate feeling.
The play opens on the mundane, everyday morning routine of the Younger family. Ruth, who, as the caregiver, must be up before the rest of the family, wakes her son Travis for school before waking up her husband. We learn that the Youngers are not doing well financially, but that they are waiting for an incoming life insurance check from the death of Walter Sr. — Walter and Beneatha’s father and Lena’s husband. Walter, who desperately craves success and status, wants to use the money to invest in a liquor store venture, while Ruth and Beneatha insist that the decision should be left up to Lena.
Emil Thomas is a superb Walter, imbuing the character with a natural charisma that balances out his more unsavory qualities. Walter is a very easy character to disdain, given the level of misogynistic rhetoric he directs at Ruth when she refuses to blindly support his misguided business ideas. Thomas’s Walter is still short-sighted at the worst of times, but he also has moments where he is funny and even charming. Thomas never forgets how these qualities intersect with one another, however, transitioning smoothly from idealistic fantasizing to startling rage.
Of course, Thomas’s performance would not work nearly as well were Mionne Destiny not such a sympathetic figure as Ruth. From her first scene, it is clear how tired she is, which makes Walter’s constant demands of praise a noticeable affront to her personhood. Destiny moves diligently about the stage, even during the play’s more serious conversations, moving from one household task to the next in a never-ending procession of duties. However, there is a comforting feeling when Destiny is onstage, as her Ruth brings a stable and calming energy that balances out her more high-spirited family members.
Yesenia Ozuna fits that description perhaps the best out of her castmates, commanding attention even when she is simply walking from her bedroom to the bathroom, simply due to how much her laissez faire attitude contrasts with the rest of the family. As the most direct Younger, Beneatha serves as the comic relief in several situations, and Ozuna’s comedic timing serves her well, using both blunt observations and sharp wit as equal tools in her belt.
Hansberry’s script asks the most of Princess Starr, whose Lena carries the thematic weight of the show on her shoulders. Lena is funny, but she is also wise, hopeful, arguably as stubborn as her children, and keenly observant when it comes to her family. Starr encapsulates all of this in a warm and welcoming package, yet when it comes time for Lena’s compassion to turn to rage, Starr summons enough intensity to bring the entire show to a fever pitch.
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the strong supporting performances from Cheryl Booker as the hysterical Mrs. Johnson and Jah Shams as a hunky and romantic Asagai. Even Logan Reed’s Karl Linder (the closest thing the play has to an antagonist) has a certain charisma that contrasts well against the other characters.
Thomas also does some solid work with the costume design, pulling ensembles that speak to each character’s personality. The set design by Thomas and Paul Thomason is simple but effective. Certain aspects of the Younger’s dilapidated home have to be filled in with imagination, but there is a strong sense of space.
Simplicity is the name of the game with this production, and Thomas’s understated, naturalistic approach proves fruitful in bringing to life such a rich and enduring story. This production seems to understand that Lorraine Hansberry’s work needs no additional frills or clever twists — it needs only a talented cast to make her words sing.
“A Raisin in the Sun”
Through April 2. $10-$50. Marietta’s Theatre in the Square, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. 770-426-4800, theatreinthesquare.net.
Bottom line: A finely-tuned cast brings Lorraine Hansberry’s most iconic play to life.