Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of Midwestern Gothic
The play brings audiences into the cramped Chicago tenement where Lena Younger (Lizan Mitchell) lives with her son Walter Lee (Will Cobbs), daughter-in-law Ruth (Dawn Ursula), grandson Travis (Jeremiah Hasty), and daughter Beneatha (Joy Jones). Lena's husband died shortly before the time of the play, and the drama centers around the disposition of his $10,000 life insurance check.
Part of Hansberry's genius is how she integrates larger social issues into the family's interactions without coming across as preachy. Walter Lee, a chauffeur, and Ruth, a domestic worker, are barely scraping by; Walter Lee wants to use the insurance money to become part owner of a liquor store, but Lena wants to make a new start away from the decrepit apartment (well depicted in Donald Eastman's set, visible from all sides in the Fichandler Stage) and into their own house.
The play can focus on either Walter Lee or Lena; since Sidney Poitier originated the role on Broadway and on film, his viewpoint tends to predominate. That isn't true in this production, where Mitchellsmall of stature but indomitablestands up for herself and demands to be taken seriously. Cobbs effectively demonstrates Walter Lee's frustration and boiling anger at a world that refuses to respect him, but he never totally breaks out. Ursula brings great dignity and heart to Ruth, while Jones makes the most of Beneatha's determination to make a difference, and Hasty is delightful.
While Walter Lee is trying to figure out what "manhood" means in a society with few options, Beneatha is going to medical school and dealing with two suitors who symbolize two opposing paths to the future. Joseph Asagai (Bueka Uwemedimo, idealistic but not stodgy) is an African intellectual preparing for the end of colonial rule in his country, while George Murchison (Keith L. Royal Smith, amusingly self-satisfied) is the son of a wealthy African-American businessman.