There’s a moment in Act Two of Lorraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN where 10-year-old Travis gives his grandmother, Lena, a gardening hat. It’s a simple gift, but especially meaningful. The generosity and thoughtfulness of this sweet little boy is a hopeful moment in a play full of emotional ups and downs. Not only is the item – the hat – a particularly nice gift but so is the gesture.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production of A RAISIN IN THE SUN is a gift, too. For the actors, who have the honor of embodying these well-developed characters every night, I’m sure it’s a pleasure. For some, these are “bucket list roles.” More importantly, though, this play is a gift to Cincinnati audiences. We should be grateful to have it.
RAISIN in the story of the Younger family. Lena (Burgess Byrd), her son Walter Lee (Geoffrey Warren Barnes), his wife Ruth (Torie Wiggins), their son Travis (Shadow Avila) and Lena’s 20-year-old daughter Beneatha (Renika Williams). They all live in a small apartment in Chicago, each with varying degrees of dreams of escape and the potential of a better life. Lena, a recent widow, is expecting and death benefit check in the life-changing amount of $10,000; Walter Lee has plans for the money while Beneatha would also benefit from having her medical school tuition covered. This money becomes the source of much conflict – within the family and outside of it.
Not only is the play beautifully written, with depth and wisdom but the acting and direction is filled with artistry and restraint. Guest director Christopher V. Edwards paints the stage with precise stage pictures that capture the essence of this classic American play. With a set (designed by Shannon Moore) that shows us the tight quarters with transparent walls that let us see the actors in subtle moments of stage business, Edwards has blocked the action in a way that keeps our rapt attention for the nearly three-hour run time.
But a good playwright and director can only do so much storytelling without quality actors. This stage is filled with some of the best. Torie Wiggins, in one of her best performances, plays Ruth with just enough zest and sass to make us believe she’s real but never upstages her on-stage husband. Barnes has so many dynamic monologues you wonder how he maintains his energy throughout the show. It really is a showcase for his talent; Walter’s passion and swagger never falter even when in the depths of despair. Williams understands youthful ambition and it shows in her characterization of Beneatha. She also brings a playfulness that authentically balances her serious qualities.
Also great are the performances by Darnell Pierre Benjamin as Nigerian immigrant Joseph Asaigai. Disappearing into his accent, Benjamin maximizes his minimal stage time. Shanessa Sweeney nearly steals the show as nosy, obnoxious neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, while Cristina Wiltshire (” George”) and Sylvester Little Jr. (“Bobo”) also serve their characters – and the story – well.
But for me it’s the star turn for Burgess Byrd as “Lena” that impresses most. Byrd, who is well-known for her work over the last many years on all kinds of stages in town – takes ahold of this role and never looks back. Burgess has such an energetic presence (see a show with her and try not to notice her supportive laugh from the back of the house) that it’s gotta be hard to settle down on stage. But she does just that. There are a handful of moments where instead of overwhelming the audience and her fellow cast members, she does what has to be some of the finest work of her career. She is elegant, graceful, and honest. I’m really happy for her.
And I’m really happy for Cincinnati Shakes. As they prepare to move into their new home next season, audiences are already rallying around them. Patrons are showing their support in many ways, giving gifts of one kind or another for their new theatre.
But they’re also giving back in the form of excellent theatre.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN runs through Easter Sunday at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company on Race Street. Tickets and more information can be found here.