Nashville Scene Review: A Raisin in the Sun

Nashville Rep's A Raisin in the Sun Is Impassioned and Nuanced

The Rep’s adaptation of the Lorraine Hansberry classic is now onstage at TPAC

Martin Brady | Nashville Scene

The good news: Lorraine Hansberry’s 58-year-old play A Raisin in the Sun endures as an important American period piece, truthfully depicting the aspirations of a black family in Chicago just a few years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Even better news: Nashville Rep’s new production presents an impassioned and sharply nuanced interpretation of the drama, which not only addresses bigotry but is a universally human work about family, foibles, forgiveness, the chance at a better life — and a little bit of hope.

The Youngers live in a cramped apartment on Chicago’s South Side. The clan includes Walter Lee, his wife Ruth, their son Travis, and Walter’s sister Beneatha and mother Lena. In low-level jobs, the family makes ends meet — but just barely. Meanwhile, Beneatha is in college, with every hope of heading to medical school.

Life changes when matriarch Lena receives an insurance payout on her husband’s recent death. (It’s 1959, and $10,000 looks a whole lot sweeter than it might these days.) Should Lena use the money to buy a house for the family? Earmark it for Beneatha’s education? Or as Walter would like, give it to him so he can invest it in a liquor store and gain himself entry into the world of business? The collision of demands inspires a series of critical scenes that push the play’s emotional content into dark personal disappointment. From there, the Youngers are faced with racism in their search for a new home and, ultimately, with striving to reaffirm their family values.

Director René D. Copeland’s cast is a collection of serious talent, with the central spotlight on Eddie George, Nashville’s football legend turned thespian. George has undeniable physical power and a penchant for channeling big emotions. Those gifts prove of special value in Act 2, when Walter Lee’s premature assertions about his future as a prominent businessman are betrayed by his own gut-wrenching lack of judgment. (Playwright Hansberry rather torturously creates a sense offoreboding leading up to Walter Lee’s missteps, his painful penitence and his subsequent biblical wailing.)

George is surrounded by proven players, including Tamiko Robinson Steele, who offers a perfectly pitched turn as Ruth, persevering despite the troubles in her marriage. Even more illuminating in performance is Lauren F. Jones, who as Beneatha emerges boldly as the play’s Cassandra figure — a feisty realist unafraid of truthful pronouncements or expressing her agnosticism or speaking on modern ideas about assimilation or the liberation of women. (It’s almost hard to believe her dialogue was written so long ago.) Veteran stage, film and TV actress Jackie Welch excels as Mama Younger, the perfect mix of God-fearing wisdom and family pride. Mama may not always be right, but she’s always strong, and you always know where you stand with her.