What’s been hailed as one of the greatest plays of all time is making its way to Bristol Riverside Theatre later this month.
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which premiered on Broadway in 1959 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and was later adapted into a Golden Globe-nominated film in 1961, is hitting the stage Jan. 30 through Feb. 18.
Audiences are immersed in the central conflict of the Younger family following the recent death of its patriarch: what to do with the life insurance check of $10,000, a small fortune of the times. While Walter’s pursuit of business ownership stands most prominent in conversation, Mama intends to protect the family’s long-term interests, emphasizing the immediate need for home ownership rather than their current living situation of a poverty-stricken, two-bedroom Southside apartment.
Struggles of betrayal, intimidation, assimilation and housing discrimination ensue, with the challenges of racism during the mid-20th-century providing the backdrop for the play.
Directing Bristol Riverside Theatre’s production is Lisa Strum, a multi-award-winning actress, playwright and Philadelphia native who was last in the borough as a cast member in 2021’s Skeleton Crew.
“It feels really special,” Strum said of her return. “Skeleton Crew was such a great experience, and it was my introduction to the Bristol community. And to be back directing, it feels like a full-circle moment.”
During the production of Skeleton Crew, Strum informed the theater’s co-producing director Ken Kaissar that she acts and directs. Kaissar urged Strum to let him know when her next directorial project was, and he’d come check it out. Last year, Strum directed Torn Asunder by Nikkole Salter at Luna Stage, which Kaissar attended and thoroughly enjoyed. Conversations began about Strum potentially helming A Raisin in the Sun. At first, she was hesitant, since the play has been done several hundred — possibly thousands — of times across the country.
“But after careful consideration, I said yes. This play is so relevant. Its themes of race and the effects of institutional racism and the acquiring of the American Dream and identity and intergenerational family dynamics are all things that we, in 2024, can relate to and identify with,” she said. “And the play is very universal in that way. Even though the play premiered in 1959, you would think that it was written yesterday.”
Strum added that, no matter what the characters look like on stage, family dramas will forever be relevant and relatable, from the financial stresses to expectations placed on each other. This is particularly true throughout A Raisin in the Sun, said Strum, regarding Beneatha, the Younger daughter who is dating, taking guitar and horseback riding lessons, and trying to come into her own as a young Black woman.
Kaissar said, “The character of Beneatha is dating two men, one from Africa who encourages her to embrace her African roots, and an American who laughs at her for doing so. There’s something so quintessentially American about this play, and that’s why it’s still regularly produced over 60 years later.”
Named the Best Play of 1959 by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway under a Black director, Lloyd Richards. First considered an investment risk, producers were astonished to witness its widespread critical acclaim and multiple curtain calls on its Broadway opening.
Boasting a marquee ensemble cast, including Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Louis Gossett Jr. and Claudia McNeil, the play was nominated for four Tony Awards in its introductory run. In fact, the New York Times cited its impact as having “changed American theater forever.”
At Bristol Riverside Theatre, Walter DeShields plays Walter Lee Younger, the role made famous by Sidney Poitier in the show’s Broadway and cinematic debuts, opposite the Younger family’s matriarch Lena (Patricia Floyd), Walter’s son Travis (Aasim Iqbal), wife Ruth (Martine Fleurisma) and sister Beneatha (Brittany Davis). Beneatha entertains two love interests, Joseph Asagai (Dayo Olatokun) and George Murchison (Brandon Pierce), who pull her on competing philosophical directions surrounding her cultural identity.
The production also features the show’s assistant director Tamara Anderson as Mrs. Johnson, the Younger family’s nosy, pessimistic neighbor, contextualizing Hansberry’s stance on civil rights. This is a role that was excluded from the original Broadway play. Anderson is an accomplished singer, actor, director and writer known for her screen roles in NBC’s Blacklist (Marion Stamps) and Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Deborah).
A Raisin in the Sun follows the feel-good A Christmas Story: The Play in Bristol Riverside Theatre’s mainstage lineup for 2023-24. While Hansberry’s work doesn’t include the level of lighthearted comedy seen in Jean Shepherd’s classic, Strum stressed that there is some levity to it.
“It does have some serious things, but the play also does have an incredible amount of humor that makes it a timeless classic,” she said. “I think it’s just an example of the human experience. It has its moments of seriousness, of poignancy, of great humor, of complexity, moments that are really thought provoking and incredibly moving and identifiable, especially with the times that we are in today, with all that’s happening in the world, what’s happening in our own personal lives.”
Strum continued, “There’s a lot of personal and cultural revolution going on. There’s a lot of people asking different questions, harder questions. I think we’re looking at ourselves more critically, more introspectively, and I think that this play mirrors all of that awakening. It’s present. It’s here. It’s honest. And I think people want to feel everything, even if they don’t know that they do. It’s just going to be such a wonderful opportunity for the Bristol community to come out and experience something that they really need to see for a collective healing, and just for a sign of relief, and to see themselves on stage.”
As always, Bristol Riverside Theatre is hosting special pre- and post-show engagements, including a reception following the Feb. 1 opening night performance. On Feb. 16, it’s presenting Black Theatre Night. Patrons may arrive early at 7 p.m. to enjoy light refreshments at a pre-show reception, and stay for a post-show conversation with Strum, community leaders and the cast. The goal of this evening is to celebrate and amplify Black voices and provide access to Black theater for all audiences.
For all who come to see A Raisin in the Sun, Strum hopes they take away one overarching message: “We’re more alike than we know. We’re more alike than we are different. Everyone is striving for something, everyone has a dream. Everyone wants to be the best version of themselves, do what’s best for their families, and be able to have or participate in what America has promised, which is the American Dream.”
Tickets are available online at brtstage.org or by phone at 215-785-0100. Bristol Riverside Theatre is located at 120 Radcliffe St.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org