Mia Ellis as Ruth comforts Richard Prioleau as Walter Lee in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Photo by Alan V. Alabastro
Mia Ellis as Ruth comforts Richard Prioleau as Walter Lee in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Photo by Alan V. Alabastro

The tragedy of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama, “A Raisin in the Sun,” is that its message still needs to be told some six decades after it debuted on Broadway. And given the current presidential climate, Hansberry’s work has never been more timely.

Seattle Repertory Theatre opened its season with a powerful production of her classic play.
Her title refers to a Langston Hughes’ poem about “dreams deferred,” and his musings as to whether those dreams shrivel up “like a raisin in the sun.”

The drama unfolds over three hours with two intermissions. But don’t be put off by the length—consider it as theatrical binge-watching. We become immersed in three generations of Younger family from their tenement in Chicago’s South Side, as they wrestle with the realities of being Black in America. Their struggle is familiar—poverty, racism and inner conflict as they dream of a better way of life.

Hansberry was the first African American woman playwright to have s play produced on Broadway. That year, she beat out Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill for the coveted New York Critics Circle Award for the best play of the year.

At the Rep, Timothy McCuen Piggee directs the groundbreaking classic with heart, empathy and honesty. This production delivers Hansberry’s saga with passion and perfection. No false note. Piggee and every one of the actors deserve a standing ovation.

Dedicated theater folks have no doubt seen numerous iterations of Hansberry’s play as well as the 1961 film, the 2008 made-for-TV movie and the 1973 musical “Raisin.” But unlike the 1950’s white audience at its Broadway debut, the opening night Rep audience was diverse, bonding together as one.

Hansberry mixes humor, conflict, pathos and realism.  When the Youngers joke about white America, of course, we laugh. Hopefully we all realize the message is still relevant.  

When the play opens, Lena Younger and her family are anxiously awaiting a $10,000 life insurance premium from the death of her husband. Everyone has an idea about how it should be spent. But the final decision belongs to Mama Lena (Denise Burse), the proud family matriarch.

Walter Lee (Richard Prioleau) dreams of quitting his chauffeur job to run his own business (a liquor store), so he can support his family in style. Equating money with manly respect, he wants to put up his feet like his image of white executives—“talk big and do nothing.”  His mother Lena, who works as a domestic, dreams buying a house to share with her family--a place where her one straggly plant, a metaphor for the family’s predicament, can thrive in its own garden.

Her daughter Beneatha (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) dreams of becoming a doctor and making a difference in people’s lives in her search for her own identity. Walter’s wife Ruth (Mia Ellis), dreams about of taking a long, luxurious bath in a bathroom she doesn’t have to share with her neighbors.

And young Travis (alternating, Jalani Clemmons and Catalino Manalang), who sleeps on the living room couch, dreams of having his own bedroom. He wants to be a chauffeur to be just like his daddy, which prompts Walter Lee to deliver a touching soliloquy about his dreams for his son.

It’s a treat to see a complete set, instead of a few chairs and tables scattered across a stark stage. Michael Ganio’s creation of a crowded, rundown tenement in Chicago’s South Side has a sink with real running water, and a gas stove that is actually used to prepare meals. Adding to the ambience are strains of Billie Holiday’s singing and scenic interludes featuring a jazz piano.

When Lena follows through on her dream, buying a small house in the all-white Clybourne Park area, Walter Lee goes ballistic. .

To add to the conflict, Clybourne’s sly white watchdog, Karl Lindner (the versatile and convincing Charles Leggett) comes to call with a bribe. He offers to buy back Lena’s investment at a profit to her. Anything to keep the black family from moving into his segregated neighborhood.

Despite Walter Lee’s selfish obsession and self-destructive behavior, Prioleau’s talented performance reveals his charismatic charm and manly chutzpah, while the formidable Burse instills Lena with old-fashioned values, determination and the self-respect that she learned from her parents.

Ellis sensitively portrays Ruth, a woman clinging to her self-worth in the face of her husband’s indifference and self-indulgence. Despite her sassy demeanor, Nako captures Beneatha’s spiritual longing. In a revealing moment, she cuts her hair, dons her newly-acquired, vibrantly-colored African togs and launches a drum-evoked dance routine inspired by her African beau, (an endearing Ricardy Charles Fabre).

This critic has long been a fan of Piggee. For decades, Seattle audiences have been privileged to see his brilliant stage. His talent as a director is equally outstanding.

He sets a pace for the production which is enhanced by the talented actors’ embellishments, as they bring their characters to life. Their gestures, facial expressions, raw emotions and physical movements combine to present a complete picture of the people they are portraying. Their actions are often confrontational, but always believable.

As the Rep production reached its conclusion, I couldn’t hold back tears. They were tears of joy because like Lena insisted, “There is always something left to love. And if you ain't learned that, you ain't learned nothing.”

My dream is the same as Hansberry’s: That the Younger family will continue to inspire us all to do the right thing.

"A Raisin in the Sun" runs through Oct. 30 at Seattle Repertory Theatre; tickets $17-$100; 206-443-2222 or online at www.seattlerep.org