Arizona Theatre Company's A Raisin in the Sun Induces a Standing Ovation

I have finally seen a play that made me want to stand and applaud at the end. First time ever.

I figure I've been to the theater on the average of once a week for 20 years, so that's something like a thousand-plus plays and musicals I've seen. (I'm certainly not boasting; anyone can sit in a theater and watch other people perform.) But not one of those thousand-odd plays has moved me enough to forego my rule against joining often-indiscriminate audiences who leap to their feet to applaud most any production's curtain call. Until Arizona Theatre Company's opening-night performance of A Raisin in the Sun, that is.

Lorraine Hansberry's play, the first written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, debuted in 1959 and featured Sidney Poitier, who also starred in the 1961 film version. A Raisin in the Sun (the title is a reference to Langston Hughes' famous 1951 poem "Harlem") follows the lives of a family in turmoil. Life in the Youngers' three-room apartment on the south side of Chicago has never been especially sunny, but we meet them on the eve of a windfall: a life insurance check for $10,000 is about to arrive, and will become the catalyst for the trauma and joy we'll watch them experience.

Lena, the matriarch of the family, worries that her son, Walter Lee, isn't man enough to run this family in the absence of his late father. Walter's wife, Ruth, worries that the family can't afford to feed the baby she's expecting. And Lena's daughter, Beneatha, fears for her own future: Will she finish medical school and become a doctor, or will she have to marry a rich man in order to get ahead?

Critics who reviewed Raisin's recent Broadway revival liked to point out how prophetic the play was when it originally debuted, but Hansberry was writing about what she knew about the black man's plight: that America's post-war prosperity largely precluded black families, whose commonality was their poverty; and that they, unlike white men, remained isolated from their own cultural heritage.

It's this last theme — personified in Hansberry's story by the character of Beneatha, who wants to better herself by going to medical school but who knows nothing of her African heritage — that's often hardest for actors to sell. Not so with director Lou Bellamy's sterling cast. He and the actors in this production have finessed melodrama, never straying into either comic antics or high-strung hand-wringing. Their joy and tears are unadorned and unapologetic, and the shift between the Youngers' highs and lows is almost dizzying but never theatrical or unreal.

The result is the feeling not that we've witnessed a play, but rather that we've eavesdropped on a family whose lives are vibrant with real emotion. I stood as much for their simple triumph as for the one achieved by the remarkable actors who brought them to life.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela