A Classic Play at Springfield Contemporary Theatre: "A Raisin in the Sun"

Feb 10, 2017

Springfield Contemporary Theatre presents the first local production of Lorraine Hansberry's classic 1959 drama "A Raisin in the Sun."
Credit (Poster design courtesy Springfield Contemporary Theatre)

Dreams are never as simple as black and white.  That's the message imparted by Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 stage drama "A Raisin in the Sun," which opens tonight at Springfield Contemporary Theatre's Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza.

Says director Rick Dines, "It takes place in a tenement apartment in southside Chicago in the early 1950s. And we have three generations (of an African-American family) living in a 3-room apartment... and it's cramped quarters."  There had been six people living there until recently, "and they've been living there going on 40 years"--the mother and father of the Younger family; their daughter; and their son, his wife, and their own small son. Daddy has passed away, his life insurance payout is coming in, "and the family has never known that much money at one time."  Among the conflicts that arise in the play: how to invest this windfall in a way that will most benefit the family. "The hope is that all their dreams can be realized when this insurance money comes in," according to Rick Dines.

Angelia King plays family matriarch Mama Lena Younger, and she has lofty ideals for the insurance money: to move the family to a better neighborhood--and a real house. We learn that she and Daddy had moved into this little apartment right after they were married, with the intention of staying there for only a year, after which they would move into a house.  But it never happened, and they raised two kids in this little space... both of whom are still living there. And the son, Walter Lee, is married with a child, and another on the way, "still living under the same roof," says Rick Dines.  Mama Lena want to buy a house to "provide a legacy" for her grandson Travis, according to Angelia King.  She calls "Raisin in the Sun" "a very intense show.  I've never played a role like this before."

If the setting sounds claustrophobic--well, it is.  And Rick Dines feels the intimacy of SCT Center Stage really contributes to this enclosed, confined, trapped feeling. "Often you see the show produced in large theaters, and the sets are twice as big as the full apartment could ever have been."  But playing it in Center Stage, he says the viewer can better "understand why relationships are very contentious at some points."

One of the major conflicts arises when Walter Lee (played in this production by Tony Wheeler), and what Angelia King characterizes as "some of his little friends" (one of whom is played by 6-foot 3-inch Jon Herbert!) decided they want to buy a liquor store with at least a portion of the insurance money.  Says King, "He's been a chauffeur, and he wants something more for himself--he wants to be able to be responsible for taking care of the family.  And he feels like this is his chance.  And of course, Mama Lena--me--I don't agree with that."

There's also Walter Lee's sister Beneatha (played by Alicia Douglas), who is in college in a pre-med program and wants to become a doctor.  A female doctor would have been rare enough in the early 1950s; an African-American female doctor, even more so. Says director Rick Dines, "She's working so hard towards this dream, so of course some of that insurance money going towards medical school for her is important for the family as well."

Finally, as we are dealing with an African-American family in early-1950s Chicago, there are the inevitable issues of racism and prejudice to be dealt with.  And, says Angelia King, "this family does deal with that, especially after Mama goes and puts down on a house in a particular neighborhood (Clybourne Park) which is predominantly white."

Both Rick Dines and Angelia King are effusive in their praise for Lorraine Hansberry's classic play.  "I tell you it is probably the best show that you'll see in the Ozarks this year," says King.  Adds Dines, "This is one of the great American plays.  This ranks in there with 'Death of a Salesman,' 'Long Day's Journey Into Night,' 'Glass Menagerie,' 'Streetcar Named Desire.'  And it hasn't been produced in Springfield to date--and that's a crime! We owe the community a great apology that this play has not been produced until  this point.  It needs to be seen.  It's taught in Springfield Public Schools, in Freshman English.

"And this cast--at least we waited for this great cast, because they really are inhabiting these characters in a  way that it feels so fresh and immediate--it doesn't feel like some stale 60-year-old play.  And part of that is, Hansberry was very ahead of her time in some of her writing.  To see a play from the 1950s that has scenes between a husband and wife that are so personal and so intimate...."  It took Dines actually working on it to realize "just how brilliant this play writing is in those small ways--it's amazing."

When Springfield Contemporary Theatre decided to produce "Raisin in the Sun," Rick Dines was determined "to pull out all the stops.  So I have to praise this design team, because it is one of the most stunning productions I think we've mounted."  He has particular praise for the work of the prop manager Dennis Stewart, who has managed to dress the sets with a huge array of correct period props and pieces. "It all looks right."

Opening tonight, Friday Feb. 10, the production will run Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm through Feb. 26 at Center Stage, corner of Pershing and Robberson downtown.  Call 831-8001 or visit www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org. You're encouraged to make reservations early, because according to Rick Dines, ticket sales have already been brisk.

And Dines wanted to put in a word for another theatrical production in town. "I want to encourage anyone seeing 'Raisin' to also make plans to see Missouri State University's production of 'Clybourne Park' opening February 23rd. Because in 2011. playwright Bruce Norris wrote this play inspired by 'A Raisin in the Sun.'  The first act takes place in the house that (Mama Lena is) looking to purchase, and the second act takes place in that same household 50 years later. And it continues this conversation about race and real estate and brings everything 'Raisin' is talking about up to the modern day.  It won the Pulitzer and it's a beautiful, beautiful play.  And so I encourage audience members to try to catch both."