American Stage opens new series with the timeless 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Posted February 3, 2018 12:06 p.m. EST

ST. PETERSBURG -- When the decadelong, 10-play August Wilson cycle concluded a year ago at American Stage, a "what next?" question hung over the theater. The beginning of the answer is now on display, and it's a beauty.

A Raisin in the Sun, the first Broadway play to be written by a black woman, was an instant hit in 1959, which speaks to the universality of Lorraine Hansberry's play at a time when segregation was the rule, not the exception. Following the century cycle, this is a profound choice to begin the American Legacy series, one play a year that will examine the country's past.

At the same time, the play is specifically about African-American experience, in this case a strong, loving family reeling from a confluence of intertwined racism and bleak economic prospects. L. Peter Callender, who directed Jitney and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, has crafted a production that understands and embraces every nuance in the script, with tensions that rise and fall musically.

Set in Chicago, the action unfolds in a rundown home intimately recreated in Steven Mitchell's set. On a wall center stage hangs a portrait of its recently deceased patriarch, whose $10,000 life insurance policy has everyone speculating. Walter Lee Younger, the son, desperately wants to invest the money in a liquor store. Dressed for work in a white shirt and tie, he paces a small dining area out of which emanates the smells of scrambled eggs and toast, railing to his wife: "I got to take hold of this here world, baby! ... I got to change my life, I'm choking to death, baby!"

Enoch King adorns the fiercely imperfect Walter with the depth of an elevator shaft, seeming in that speech like a man who with the slightest break could become a millionaire. Then he puts on his chauffeur's cap, and reality snaps into place. It is one of many telling moments.

If Walter provides the muscle that drives the body of this play forward, his mother, Lena, is its heart. And no force defines this show so much as Fanni Green's performance. Her phrasing is exquisite; she holds gravitational power. When she turns, the play turns.

Other performances, notably Sheryl Carbonell as Walter's wife, Ruth, and Kiara Hines as his sister Beneatha, give voice and shape to this high-stakes tug-of-war. Gavin Hawk and Patrick A. Jackson hold down opposite poles as the hostile representative of a white homeowners association and Beneatha's Nigerian boyfriend.

More important than those performances is the fact that the cast has syncretized into one pulsating thing. It moves through an entire scale of human emotion, through what Lena calls at one point the "hills and valleys" that can drive the same people to acts of extreme selfishness or heroism. The result is not only a worthy successor to the last couple of August Wilson shows, it is better than either of them, which is as high a recommendation as can be offered.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.