In May 1959, Lorraine Hansberry, suddenly famous though still a week away from her 29th birthday, was interviewed on the radio by the great Studs Terkel. It was two months after a landmark event in theater history: the opening of “A Raisin in the Sun’’ at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, which made Hansberry the first African-American woman playwright ever to be produced on Broadway.
When Terkel noted the positive response to her play, Hansberry quickly broadened the focus: “I think it reflects at this particular moment in our country — as troubled and as depressed as I, for one, am about so much of it — it reflects a new mood. We went through eight to 10 years of misery under [Joseph] McCarthy and all that nonsense, and to the great credit of the American people they got rid of it.’’
“And they’re feeling like: Make new sounds!’’ added Hansberry. “I’m glad I was here to make one.’’
That she was and that she did. Hansberry was here for a heartbreakingly brief time — she died of cancer when she was only 34 — but what a masterpiece she left behind in “A Raisin in the Sun,’’ now at the Huntington Theatre Company in a shattering production directed by Liesl Tommy.
All the passion Hansberry poured into her play comes surging through in the performances by Tommy’s ensemble, especially LeRoy McClain, Kimberly Scott, Ashley Everage, and Keona Welch as the four adult members of the Younger family.
There is another, silent figure onstage for much of this “Raisin,’’ about whom I will say nothing except that it’s an effective touch.
When the play begins, it is, according to a program note, “sometime between World War II and 1959.’’ Clint Ramos’s rotating turntable set not only allows us to see the various rooms in the Youngers’ shabby apartment on the South Side of Chicago, but also creates the sense of a household in whirling flux.
Indeed, after many years of barely getting by, their lives circumscribed by racial inequality, the Youngers now confront the possibility of a fresh start.
That means different things to each of them, however, which is why family conflict escalates as they anxiously await the arrival of a $10,000 life insurance check, being paid upon the death of Big Walter, husband to Lena Younger (Scott) and father to Walter Lee (McClain) and Beneatha (Welch).
Walter, a chauffeur in his mid-30s who dreams big dreams of business success but is haunted by the sense that time is running out on him, wants to use the money to buy a liquor store, in partnership with a couple of dubious characters. In McClain’s searingly kinetic portrayal, Walter constantly seems about to jump out of his own skin. When he says “Bitter? Man, I’m a volcano,’’ we can almost see the lava rising. This takes a considerable toll on Walter’s wife, Ruth, whose mixture of weariness and flickering hope is beautifully captured by Everage.
Once the money arrives, Beneatha, a college student of about 20, will be able to continue on to medical school and fulfill the ambition to be a doctor that has driven her since childhood. Welch endows Beneatha with a nicely balanced combination of undergraduate pretension and wry self-awareness. Beneatha is juggling the romantic attentions of two suitors: George Murchison (Corey Allen), a haughty student from a wealthy family, and Joseph Asagai (Jason Bowen, terrific), an intellectual from Nigeria.
And Lena, the matriarch and final arbiter, played by Scott with a moving blend of strength and vulnerability? She stuns her family with the news that she has used part of the money to buy a house in Clybourne Park, an all-white neighborhood. What Lena does with the rest of the money eventually leads to a tumultuous turn of events, but the fallout is immediate from her purchase of the home: A member of a neighborhood association that is determined to keep Clybourne Park segregated, Karl Lindner (an appropriately unctuous Will McGarrahan), shows up with an offer to pay the Youngers more than they paid for the house.
(Lindner is also a character in Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park,’’ now at SpeakEasy Stage Company, in which the Youngers are a major if unseen presence. The drama unfolds in their house, in two different eras: the 1950s, just as the Youngers have made the purchase, and a half century later.)
Seeing Hansberry’s drama today, one is struck by her ability to peer into the near future, the social ferment that lay just around the corner in the 1960s. The advances that would soon be ushered in by the civil rights movement are anticipated in “Raisin,’’ as is the fierce white backlash. In the character of Beneatha, based on Hansberry herself, we can see the stirrings of the women’s movement and the more expansive identities that movement would make possible.
But if “Raisin’’ retains a throat-catching power, it is largely because in telling the story of the Younger family, Hansberry dramatized the deep human truths that can be found in the turbulent passage from aspiration to desperation to affirmation. Tommy’s production reminds us how fully and how richly Hansberry’s “new sounds’’ continue to reverberate.