`A Raisin in the Sun' pursues the present

A Raisin in the Sun Play by Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Harold Scott. The Roundabout Theatre Company is closing its 20th-anniversary season by celebrating a signal event in the history of American playmaking. In 1959, ``A Raisin in the Sun'' marked the first Broadway production of a play by a black woman. The work of Chicago's 26-year-old Lorraine Hansberry won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. It pioneered a new era in American stage history, has been produced throughout the world and published in 30 languages.

In comic and dramatic terms, ``A Raisin in the Sun'' treats a cross section of issues facing black Americans ``sometime between World War II and the present,'' to quote the published text. That the play proves more relevant than dated stems principally from the fact that many of the issues remain unresolved. Debates over such matters as assimilation versus pan-Africanism may have subsided, but topics like the state of black families and of civil rights, particularly in the matter of housing, remain acutely pertinent.

``A Raisin in the Sun'' reveals its traditionalist roots more in form and treatment than in subject matter and characterization. Ms. Hansberry wrote a long, three-act play, which runs more than three hours at the Roundabout. The plot involves the disposition of widow Lena Younger's (Olivia Cole) insurance legacy and the substantial loss suffered when her son, Walter Lee Younger (James Pickens Jr.) misuses some of the funds and gets cheated by a dishonest business partner.

The consequences of ``a dream deferred'' (to quote from the Langston Hughes poem that frames the play) supply the prevailing theme of ``A Raisin in the Sun.'' Lena's son, Walter Lee, is the focus of the playwright's concern. Feeling desperately trapped in his chauffeur's job, with its menial limits and implications, Walter Lee nurtures a dream that may well explode with devastating consequences for himself and the other members of the Younger family. Mr. Pickens plays him as a young man whose determination to assert himself feeds on his frustrations and resentments.

Tensions are matched by tenderness in the Hansberry equation. Steadfast Lena -- ``Mama'' to her obstreperous brood -- is more than a conventional black matriarch. She shares the dream with her children while clinging to ideals of integrity and Christian conviction. When Beneatha Younger (Kim Yancey) berates her brother for his reckless behavior, it is Lena who observes quietly, ``There is always something left to love.'' Ms. Cole's delivery of the line typifies the steadfastness and compassion with which she invests this memorable role.

Other family members in the semi-autobiographical play are forcefully acted by Starletta DuPois as Walter's loyal but bewildered wife, Ms. Yancey as the college-student sister who dreams of becoming a doctor, and (at the performance I attended) Kimble Joyner as the appealing little Travis Younger. Beneatha's boyfriends are nicely differentiated by Vondie Curtis-Hall as Joseph Asagai, the worldly Nigerian, and Joseph C. Phillips as a self-confident junior member of the black bourgeoisie.

Returning to the role he created in the 1959 production, John Fiedler plays Karl Lindner, the mild-mannered ``welcoming committee'' representative of the community in which the Youngers have bought their dream home. Having failed to buy them off, Lindner delivers the classic rationale of racism: ``You can't force people to change their hearts. . . .'' Fortunately, the Youngers have the courage of their dreams.

Thomas Cariello's atmospheric apartment setting is an island of decent shabbiness seen against a background cityscape of roofs and breeze-blown laundry. The well-designed production has been lighted by Shirley Prendergast and costumed by Judy Dearing. The Roundabout revival (through Sept. 7) is an honorable tribute to a playwright whose all too brief career heralded a new era in the American theater.

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