Review: ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ and still fresh

If mama ain’t happy in Walter Dallas’ tight, convincing production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” then nobody is.

And you’ll know just when to laugh with her, when to commiserate and when to duck, because at Arden Theatre Company these nights, the mother in Lorraine Hansberry’s play is portrayed with such a clarity of purpose by Joilet F. Harris.

Her interpretation — more like inhabitation — of Lena Younger, the woman driven to move her family out of their cramped and fraying apartment in Chicago’s black south side in 1959, is richly textured and real. Harris makes sure you’ll know everything about her character, a woman who fights to keep her family safe, sane and on the straight and narrow.

The world is changing, and Lena Younger doesn’t want most of that. But there’s one change she’s sure of — with the $10,000 insurance check on her late husband’s life, she can get her family a house of their own, and maybe even a little garden, and very possibly a better life. She finds a house for sale in the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood, a place that she can afford.

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Or can she? Money’s one thing. Acceptance is another. You can’t help but ponder, as “A Rasin in the Sun” unfolds on Daniel Conway’s apartment set, about how much has changed when it comes to issues of race and real estate, and also, how much has not.

The late Hansberry’s play pulls no punches — surely one reason it’s been so popular with audiences. It ran on Broadway in 1959, then became a movie with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, and then a musical called “Raisin.” Last season, the actor and playwright Bruce Norris wrote a play called “Clybourne Park” that traces the history of the house Mrs. Younger wants to buy in that very neighborhood. The first act’s about the white family moving out of it, making it available for Mrs. Younger’s down payment. The second act takes place in the present, when a white family tries to buy the house in what’s now a thriving, upper-middle class black community

Arden Theatre Company presented “Clybourne Park” last year, before its Broadway production opened and went on to win the best-play Tony Award. Arden’s “Raisin in the Sun” solidly fills in the middle of that cycle of neighborhood change.

Back to Joilet Harris: Every move she makes, every detail in her physical and vocal expression is right — she embodies the determination to march forward with faith in the world even as the world is determined to push her back.

The excellent cast also includes the actor called by the initials U. R. as her son, Jaleesa Capri as her daughter, Nikki E. Walker as her daughter-in-law, and Leonard C. Haas as the heavy, a man sent from Clybourne Park to convince the family not to move there. In a perfect world this play would be a dated history piece. At the Arden, it carries a real sense of urgency.

A RAISIN IN THE SUN runs through April 21 at Arden Theatre Company, Second Street just north of Market. Tickets: $36-$48. or 215-922-1122.

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