The orderly but threadbare Younger apartment is glazed in sepia; the lighting is warm, nostalgic and gorgeous not what you'd hope for in a play with a title borrowed from a poem asking, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?"
Nothing's drying up here. The sun in this Raisin beams down honey.
Lorraine Hansberry's masterpiece is now almost 50 and is perhaps overly familiar. For most people, A Raisin in the Sun once a searing revelation presaging the heartbreak and joy of the civil rights struggle is now just a beloved, well-crafted play. Or, worse, a piece of history to lacquer with light.
I'm thrilled to report, then, that the cast of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's revival treats the play as something athrob and afire. They go at it as if each hurt documented by Hansberry is unprecedented. They attack each act with such vigor and feeling that even audience members who know this story in their bones should find it fresh and affecting. As three hours pass and the Younger family gains and loses the $10,000 windfall that represents, for each, a different salvation, don't even bother fighting back tears.
The actors portraying the Youngers are uniformly excellent. As adult siblings Beneatha and Walter, Bakesta King and David Alan Anderson are called upon to change (and suffer) the most. King's Beneatha grows movingly from a chattering know-it-all to a woman of wisdom and moral seriousness, and Anderson charts Walter's many ups and downs with charm and anguish. As Walter's wife, Ruth, Shané Williams is sharp-edged, but we understand why: Life with this man, crammed into this apartment, has whetted her. And Franchelle Stewart Dorn is perfect as Mama she's as warm as those lights but not one ounce syrupy.
Director Lou Bellamy allows many pauses for Hansberry's humor, even after some lines that I'm not convinced are meant to be funny. Encouraged by the show, the predominately honky crowd roared at anything about whooping kids or Walter's thoughts on what's "wrong with colored women today." Stranger, though, were the huge laughs when Walter's 10-year-old son asks, late one night, "What's the matter, Daddy? Are you drunk?"
Titters erupted even during the soul-crushing yes um, mastuh routine Walter delivers at the climax. Here, as this troubled but decent man is tempted to sell out his race for easy cash, the show's pace suddenly quickens to the detriment of the scene's emotional impact. Did they double-time it, I wonder, to let white people know that this shit ain't funny?
In other crowd news, the matter-of-fact handling of abortion and atheism themes that stirred no trouble at all when we read this in my high school 15 years ago set off minor bristling among some fogeys seated near me.
Good. The great mistake perhaps even the great danger with A Raisin in the Sun is to let it become harmless. Bathing it in gold, fixing it too firmly in the past, saps its urgency. A black family struggling to get by, making impossible choices, being made unwelcome in white neighborhoods? Alter a handful of cultural references and this supposedly too-familiar play is shouting what we need to know right now.
There's nothing queasy about the laughs in Sparts Radio, an ambitious new comedy by Prairie Village playwright William Truesdell. Equal parts romantic comedy and media satire, Radio imagines a low-rated Cleveland sports-talk station taking a stab at a daring new format: 24-hour arts coverage. For Truesdell's WSPR, this entails covering gallery openings like they're playoff games and symphony hirings as though they're the NFL draft. Truesdell is smart about the godawfulness of radio and in his light way works in enough pique about deregulation horrors and corporate consolidation to fill a Harper's article.
His best, most stinging lines go to a seen-it-all newsman played by Adrian Alexander, dry as shedded snakeskin and consistently funny. Alexander is part of a spirited ensemble headed by the excellent Richard Buswell as Guy Tripillo, the kind of radio host who spends most of his on-air time telling us what we should and should not give "a rat's ass" about. Whereas much of the two-and-a-half-hour running time is given to a romance between station owner Stone Turner (Tom Murdock) and new program director Ericka Hanson (Stephanie Kelman, smiling hugely but talking too slowly), what's most interesting is Buswell's shock jock. His on-air rebellion against the new format rings funny and true, and his off-air bitching crackles.
Unfortunately, Tripillo's arc peters out, resolving itself offstage. This leaves us with the love plot, which, for all of its lively banter, is much less inspired than Truesdell's central conceit. At its best, Sparts Radio isn't just an exploration of crappy arts coverage. It also asks why we're trained to value sports over the humanities, and it even posits a tough, classist theory: that the arts are territory marked by elite society types desperate to maintain a superior air. But the invaluable TymeWorks Productions, which also gave us the superlative Killer Joe, disproves such a cynical theory: Producer Tyler Miller continues to stage smart, accessible shows with impeccable technical aspects that belie a winning scruffiness. It's art for the folks.