Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" is, surely, the greatest Chicago play.
Oh, there are other contenders — "The Front Page," this town's namesake musical, even "Clybourne Park," a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that riffs on Hansberry's 1959 masterpiece. But viewed on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s declaration of "I Have a Dream" in an immersive, intimate, visceral, local, emotional, superbly acted production from Ron OJ Parson at the TimeLine Theatre, there really is no contest.
There is no great body of Hansberry work that would have made this daughter of Chicago a beloved civic treasure in the way that August Wilson forever will be the poet of Pittsburgh. Hansberry died at 34; a crushing loss for American literature. Aside from a second minor drama, she left behind only this play.
But what a piece of work.
It ripples with the complexities of all that is Chicago: It references its street corners; the promise of freedom and economic progress it held for southern blacks of a generation barely removed from slavery; the civic glue of its families; its many heartbreaks; the pride of all its citizens in their neighborhoods and their communities; and the huge possibilities and crippling dangers thereof.
More than anything, "Raisin" understands the essential restlessness of Chicago, a city that attracts just that kind of leader.
Sitting there on Wellington Avenue and blinking back a few tears, just a few minutes before sitting down to write, I felt anew how much Hansberry had anticipated, back when Brown v. Board of Education was barely old enough to walk. She wrote of racial pain but also of the inexorable march of progress and how little changes gradually topple old prejudices. It is as if she saw what was to happen with gay rights, as well as the black president who was to come, a president who once walked the very South Side of Chicago streets upon which Hansberry had lived with her family.
And yet for all its prescient wisdom on race and America — including an exquisite understanding of how, in Chicago, racial politics was manifest in no sector as profoundly as real estate, Hansberry also had a remarkably rich understanding of such matters as male pride and the perils of marriage, not to mention the angst that was about to explode within an entire generation.
"How did we get to a place where we're scared to talk softly to each other," says Ruth Younger (exquisitely played by newcomer Toni Martin, the unexpected standout of this production) to her husband Walter Lee Younger (played as a coiled spring by the excellent Jerod Haynes).
You do not need to want to integrate a neighborhood to understand the dangers of that particular marital truth. Martin's Ruth is never better than when she says, as if her life depended on it, "We've got to move," speaking for untold numbers of Chicago women who longed for more room for their families.
Parson, who adds his usual bluesy soundtrack to this "Raisin," takes his time and really convinces you that you always have underappreciated the poetry of this particular drama. There has been much critical focus on its well-made structure over the years and on the issues of the play, but Hansberry really was, or would have become, a dramatic poet on the order of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller.
Somehow, Parsons and skilled actors like Greta Oglesby, who plays Mama with absolute moral authority, make her prose seem like it's reaching for those heights, and, at times, finding them. TimeLine, for sure, is working now with a new level of actors, although preserving its crucial intimacy.
In one of his finest pieces of visual work to date, the designer Brian Sidney Bembridge has not just forged the usual proscenium-style setting for the Younger's South Side apartment. Rather, he allows his audience to enter into their entire apartment building — the lobby is a sea of anonymous front doors of the kind that anyone who has lived in the city can recognize. It's easy to believe they all lead to the kind of roach-filled rooms that would, as Lena Younger observes, make any man yearn for boards he can call his own.
You walk to your seat through the Younger's front door — the same door at which Karl Linder (carefully crafted by Chris Rickett), the emissary of terrified white residents, will soon knock. Actually, there are moments in Parson's staging when it feels like the front rows of the audience are sitting right there with Beneatha (Mildred Marie Langford, who understands the youth of her character as well as the force of her passions) and her African beau, Joseph Asagai (Daryl Satcher).
"Raisin" has never had a comparable, all-out, revisionist, Chicago-style staging; it has been patiently waiting, and deserving, these past 58 years.
This newspaper, to the surprise of many 55 years ago, crucially supported this then-unknown work prior to its original Broadway opening, in many ways making that opening possible.
There is no better moment to stand behind its glories again.
When: Through Nov. 17
Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.
Tickets: $35-48 at 773-281-8463 or timelinetheatre.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye