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PlayMakers Rep’s Double Header of “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Clybourne Park” Packs a Wallop

EDITOR’S NOTE: 1 This is one of two Triangle Arts & Entertainment reviews of A Raisin in the Sun. To read the Feb 7th review by Susie Potter, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2013/02/playmakers-repertory-company-breathes-new-life-into-a-classic/.

The “Raisin in the Sun” cast includes (standing from left) Miriam Hyman as Beneatha Younger, Mikaal Sulaiman as Walter Lee Younger, Dee Dee Batteast as Ruth Younger, and Victor Waddell as Travis Younger, plus Kathryn Hunter-Williams (seated) as Lena Younger (photo by Jon Gardiner)

The “Raisin in the Sun” cast includes (standing from left) Miriam Hyman as Beneatha Younger, Mikaal Sulaiman as Walter Lee Younger, Dee Dee Batteast as Ruth Younger, and Victor Waddell as Travis Younger, plus Kathryn Hunter-Williams (seated) as Lena Younger (photo by Jon Gardiner)

EDITOR’S NOTE 2: Jesse R. Gephart is a Raleigh, NC actor, director, and theater and music critic. To read all of his Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/jesse-r-gephart/.

Let me preface the first part of this review by letting you in on a little secret: I’m a bad actor. At least I could be potentially perceived as a bad actor for the mere fact that walking into PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Saturday matinee performance of A Raisin in the Sun was my first real experience with that material.

Sure, I’d heard of Raisin. Sidney Poitier was in the original Broadway cast and in the original movie; Hansberry was the first African-American woman to have a work on Broadway; and it was directed by the first African-American to direct on Broadway, Lloyd Richards.

And it’s not that the material didn’t interest me, or that I held some sort of grudge against the piece. In fact I’ve had a copy of it for some time. I just never cracked the cover. In a way, I’m glad it worked out that way. I had a vague sense of some plot elements, but was not prepared for the emotional impact the story would provide.

PlayMakers enlisted Raelle Myrick-Hodges to direct A Raisin in the Sun; and she made some strong choices with the material, choosing to book-end the piece with interview audio of Lorraine Hansberry speaking about the very story we were about to watch. Several other “heightened” moments of theatricality revolve around sound designer Robert Dagit’s underscoring, used as punctuation to key moments, especially in Act II. It’s a little dramatic, but worked pretty well. I’m not sure it would have been so successful had it not been for the work being delivered by the ensemble.

The Younger family is led by Lena (Kathryn Hunter-Williams), a tough matriarch whose home is still full of family: son Walter (Mikaal Sulaiman), his wife Ruth (Dee Dee Batteast), and their child Travis (Victor Waddell), plus Lena’s daughter, Beneatha (Miriam A. Hyman). The core unit works flawlessly together.

Kathryn Hunter-Williams is a strong, grounded force here; I had never before had the opportunity to see her on stage, although I’ve heard of her for years. Mikaal Sulaiman is charged with a difficult task portraying a rather unlikeable, verging on detestable, character, while not alienating the audience so much that his redemption at the end is empty. Walter is a Stanley-Kowalski-type, minus the happy ending.

Sulaiman gets under your skin, and his Walter deserves the beating Lena gives him. As Ruth, Dee Dee Batteast also has her own challenges, playing a character who could come across as one-note; but thankfully this is not so. Batteast hits Ruth’s core, and is an excellent foil to both Walter and Beneatha.

Victor Waddell’s Travis is — as he should be — an innocent, while pulling some appropriate laughs. As Beneatha, it is Miriam Hyman, however, who provides the strongest performance. Beneatha is a young woman determined to make good for her own life by becoming a doctor, and Hyman’s eyes carry such anguish as Beneatha attempts to pull herself out of the mire she is in and into the life she deserves.

Sharp cameos by Matt Garner (more on him later), J. Alphonse Nicholson, Daniel Morgan Shelley, and Nilan Johnson (also more on him later) help round out this excellent ensemble of performers.

The pace of the show is brisk, and keeps the story from wallowing in its own pools of misery. The tension builds well, while still allowing for the emotional impacts of Walter’s treason or the perceived collapse of the family’s dream to resonate long past the moment that Lena finally closes the door on their old life.

My only true hang-up about either production — and I will use this as a segue — is scenic. I’ll confess that a draw to PlayMakers is its visual elements and spectacle. In the past, even when I have been underwhelmed by, say, the script, I can always fall back on, Well, the set was gorgeous; or, The costumes were so beautiful; or better, The talent! Here, all I can really say for the set is that it’s just fine. It’s by far the least appealing set I’ve seen at PlayMakers, and it merely services the play as a fair backdrop.

The set does nothing, in either production, to enhance or help elevate the story. In fact, at times, I feel it works against the piece. It’s just simply present. Set designer Robin Vest missed the mark, especially in Clybourne Park, where the set gets a total transformation during the intermission break. It’s incredible to watch the ease with which the crew transitions the Youngers’ home from a quaint 1950s two-story into a dilapidated and forgotten shell — but there wasn’t enough time.

I understand the confines of the Paul Green Theatre can prove tricky, especially when you’re dealing with a set that requires a sense of true architecture; but I’ve seen PlayMakers soar scenically in the past. Here it fell flat. But, thankfully, this is the only letdown, especially as we move into the Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris.

The “Clybourne Park” cast includes (from the left) Josh Tobin as Tom, Rasool Jahan as Lena, Nilan Johnson as Kevin, Kelsey Didion as Lindsey, and Constance Macy as Kathy (photo by Jon Gardiner)

The “Clybourne Park” cast includes (from the left) Josh Tobin as Tom, Rasool Jahan as Lena, Nilan Johnson as Kevin, Kelsey Didion as Lindsey, and Constance Macy as Kathy (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Bruce Norris’ script starts off on a shared day and with a shared character that we meet in Raisin. In Lorraine Hansberry’s story, Karl Linder (Matt Garner) approaches the Youngers, and offers to buy the house in Clybourne Park out from under them, so as to prevent the first black family from entering the community. In Clybourne Park, Karl visits Russ (Jay O’Berski) and his wife, Bev (Constance Macy), and tries to convince the couple to not sell their house to the Younger family (though they are never mentioned by name).

Russ and Bev are leaving their perfect little life after their son, Jim (Josh Tobin), kills himself in his bedroom after returning home from war. The story starts out at a moderate chug; but once Karl appears, all hell breaks loose. The entire cast is on stage before half the show has passed; the tensions are high — very high — and verbal blows are exchanged at a rapid rate.

Act II of Clybourne Park takes place 50 years later. The all-white neighborhood has become an all-black neighborhood, and now the Youngers’ house stands vacant and falling apart. A white couple, Steve (Matt Garner again) and Lindsey (Kelsey Didion), are trying to buy the house in order to start a revitalization of the neighborhood. Lena (Rasool Jahan) and her husband Kevin (Nilan Johnson) are interested in maintaining African-American ownership of the property, because of its historical significance. Moreover, Lena is a descendant of the Youngers and spent time in the house as a child.

The story dances around race in Act I, sometimes touching down on the truth, but always flitting off of it again. Such was the way in the 1950s; no one really talked about anything in specificity, it was all general.

Act II removes the gloves, and the words racist and racism finally get tossed around — a lot — and Clybourne Park playwright Bruce Norris masterfully builds a substantial amount of dramatic, climactic tension around a series of jokes. I consider it a successful experience to say that I was squirming in my seat at just how awkward the moments became — a testament not only to the writing but to the stellar acting.

Jay O’Berski turns in solid, balanced performance, mixing his stoicism with Russ’ feelings of betrayal by his community. His performance in Act II, while outlandish, was still rooted in that same trademark truth that makes O’Berski one of the strongest working actors in our area today.

Matt Garner, a third-year MFA student at the University of North Carolin at Chapel Hill, turns in what I consider to be his strongest performance to date on stage at PlayMakers. Nilan Johnson, a commanding presence on stage, also turned in a fine performance.

Josh Tobin did strong work with a difficult track. Tasked with three different roles that all lie on the periphery of the story, without a real moment to sink his teeth into the heart of the action, he remained present and memorable, even as Russ and Bev’s late son, Kenneth, who is given brief, yet significant, stage time in the closing moments of the show.

Rasool Jahan turns in a centered, grounded performance as Francine, Russ and Bev’s maid, and really turns up the heat as Lena. Her confidence on stage makes it so you can’t stop watching her.

Kelsey Didion has one of the most difficult roles in the show in Act I, during which she plays Betsy, who is deaf; Didion plays the truth so convincingly that when she opens her mouth as Lindsey in Act II, you’re almost shocked to find out she can actually speak. Constance Macy’s Bev is larger than life, yet still honest, and her Kathy plays just as strong.

PlayMakers should be commended for pulling off this feat. It’s a brilliant move on the artistic staff’s part to rep these two shows. If you’re an audience member who likes to feel involved in the show they’re watching, then this double-header is for you. The cohesiveness of the casts and the range of their abilities is draw enough to buy a ticket.

SECOND OPINION: Feb. 7th Durham, NC Duke Chronicle review by Jamie Kessler (who awarded A Raisin in the Sun 5 of 5 stars): http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/theater-review-raisin-sun; Feb. 7th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts & Entertainment review of A Raisin in the Sun by Susie Potter: https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2013/02/playmakers-repertory-company-breathes-new-life-into-a-classic/; Feb. 6th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded A Raisin in the Sun 4.5 of 5 stars and Clybourne Park 4 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/playmakers-reps-ambitious-double-staging-of-a-raisin-in-the-sun-and-clybourne-park/Content?oid=3268836; Feb. 6th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel review by Mary Feddeman: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2013/02/5111e5032ac61; Jan. 24th preview by Josephine Yurcaba: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2013/01/playmakers-confronts-prejudice-in-shows, Jan. 16th multimedia preview by Colleen McEnaney, Delia D’Ambra, and Lily Fagan: http://www.dailytarheel.com/multimedia/15797, and Jan. 16th preview by Josephine Yurcaba: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2013/01/playmakers-tackles-issues-of-gentrication-in-new-plays; Feb. 4th Raleigh, NC CVNC review of A Raisin in the Sun by Spencer Powell: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=6000 and Feb. 4th review of Clybourne Park by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=5994; Feb. 4th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/02/04/2655535/a-fine-pairing-explores-race-gender.html; Feb. 2nd Chapel Hill, NC 97.9 FM WCHL interview with Raelle Myrick-HodgesTracy YoungMikaal SulaimanD.G. Martin http://chapelboro.com/topic/play_window.php?audioType=Episode&audioId=6219769; Jan. 31st Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/entertainment/x1733187699/-Raisin-in-the-Sun-and-Clybourne-Park-both-on-stage (Note 1: You must register to read this article); and Jan. 8th Chapel Hill, NC Chapel Hill Weekly & Magazine preview by Jessie Ammons: http://www.chapelhillmagazine.com/blogs/chapel-hill-magazine-blog/playmakers-presents-a-raisin-in-the-sun-and-clybourne-park/. (Note 2: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 26th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2013/01/playmakers-repertory-company-presents-a-raisin-in-the-sun-and-clybourne-park-on-jan-26-march-3/.)

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents A RAISIN IN THE RUN at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6-8, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 13, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15 and 16, 2 p.m. Feb. 17, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19, 2 p.m. Feb. 23, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27, 2 p.m. March 2 CLYBOURNE PARK at 2 p.m. Feb. 10, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 12 and 14, 2 p.m. Feb. 16, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20-23, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26 and 28, 7:30 p.m. March 1, and 2 p.m. March 3 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15-$50, except $10 UNC students, $12 all other students, and $15 general admission on Tuesdays (Community Night).

BOX OFFICE: 919/962-PLAY or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/843-2311, miwashin@email.unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.

SHOWS:

A Raisin in the Sun: http://playmakersrep.org/raisin.

Clybourne Park: http://playmakersrep.org/clybournepark.

NEWS RELEASE: http://www.playmakersrep.org/media/story.aspx?id=fb1dbeca-e7dc-4f13-9ba3-66b9bf2efdf4.

SEASON: http://www.playmakersrep.org/season1213.

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/.

BLOG: http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

VENUE: http://www.playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://www.playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

NOTE 1: The 2 p.m. Feb. 9th performance of A Raisin in the Sun and the 2 p.m. Feb. 16th performance of Clybourne Park will be an Open-Captioned Performances. For details, click http://www.playmakersrep.org/opencaption.

NOTE 2: There will be FREE post-performance discussions with the creative team of A Raisin in the Sun on Feb. 11th and 17th and with the creative team of Clybourne Park on Feb. 24th and 28th.

NOTE 3: Arts Access, Inc. (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) of Raleigh will audio-describe an All-Access Performance of A Raisin in the Sun on Feb. 19th and of Clybourne Park on Feb. 26th, which will also feature sign-language interpretation and Large-Print and Braille programs and — if requested in advance by e-mail to whitneywhite@unc.edu — a tactile tour of the set.

NOTE 4: At 2 p.m. on March 2nd (A Raisin in the Sun) and at 2 p.m. on March 3rd (Clybourne Park), the N.C. Psychoanalytic Foundation (http://www.ncpsychoanalysis.org/), the Lucy Daniels Foundation (http://ldf.org/), and the N.C. Psychoanalytic Society (http://www.ncpsasoc.org/).will sponsor FREE post-show 50-minute “Mindplay” discussions, led by Harold Kudler, MD, who will speak on “Raisin d’être: The Long View of People and Community.”

OTHER LINKS:

A Raisin in the Sun (background): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Raisin_in_the_Sun (Wikipedia).

A Raisin in the Sun (script): http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Lorraine Hansberry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorraine_Hansberry (Wikipedia).

Clybourne Park (background): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clybourne_Park (Wikipedia).

Clybourne Park (script): http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Bruce Norris: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Norris_(playwright) (Wikipedia).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Jesse R. Gephart is a Raleigh, NC actor, director, and theater and music critic. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.

To read all of Jesse R. Gephart’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/jesse-r-gephart/.

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