Circle Players' production of A Raisin in the Sun is accompanied by a thoughtful program that offers historical context — specifically, the legal battle playwright Lorraine Hansberry's family fought in the 1940s to combat racially restrictive covenants used by white homeowners to keep their neighborhoods white. But on a purely dramatic level, director Clay Hillwig's new mounting of this American classic proves that Raisin isn't only about the politics of equality. In fact, what keeps the play so vital — more than 50 years after its debut — is its sensitive take on family dynamics. Yes, the Younger family is beset with the challenges of life on Chicago's South Side in the 1950s — where much of the work available to African-Americans is essentially servile — but how they interact as humans dreaming of a better day is the play's universal core.
There's excitement in the household: Mama is soon to receive her deceased husband's life insurance payout. What she plans to do with the money is anyone's guess, but her son Walter Lee envisions using it to invest in a liquor store so he can quit his job as a chauffeur and gain some upward mobility. Walter Lee's sister, Beneatha, dreams of medical school, and his wife, Ruth, is hoping Mama will use the money to buy a house they can all live in. Mama attempts to please everyone, yet hellacious personal battles ensue.
Hillwig's casting affirms the development of Nashville's African-American talent pool in recent years, with even lesser-known players displaying some serious acting chops. Michael McLendon's Walter Lee is a powerhouse performance, an angry black man with legitimate demons and no clear way to exorcise them. When his big chance to establish himself as leader of his clan finally arrives, he blunders hugely. McLendon effectively exudes the bravado Walter Lee uses to conceal his obvious faults while still conveying his emotional complexity.
Shelena Walden is also highly successful as Beneatha, offering us a thoroughly engaging and credible portrait of a curious, brave and cynical woman with legitimate aspirations. Almost a Cassandra-like figure, Walden's Bennie is strong-willed to a fault — yet when push comes to shove, she still minds her mother.
As Ruth, LaToya Gardner contends for control on the home front. More interesting is how she deals with her vulnerabilities as wife and working mother. It's a strong portrayal of a subtly pivotal role.
Dara Talibah is Mama, and she is the guiding light for all — a wellspring of self-respect, family honor, religious discipline and unconditional love, but with a tough exterior that places her in the center of some indelicate moments. Talibah performed the same part 35 years ago at TSU, but now she's the right age to really give the role heft. Her casting is spot-on.
Solid support is provided by the charming Elliott Robinson, as an eloquent African national; Jim Manning, as the representative from the Youngers' prospective new neighborhood; Max Desir, as Beneatha's upper-class suitor; and Courtney McClellan, Tobyus Green and young Eric Williams II.
At first, the undisguised use of headset microphones throughout takes some getting used to, especially given the threadbare appearance of the Youngers' apartment. Yet the acting's so good that such a disconnect eventually becomes irrelevant.
With Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday in the rearview mirror and Black History Month right around the corner, Raisin couldn't be more perfectly timed for Nashville theatergoers.
Now playing at the Darkhorse Theater is Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World, a long one-act that is both a memory play and a coming-of-age story. In structure, Peter Parnell's 1980s-era script echoes Suzan-Lori Parks' play Topdog/Underdog, while thematically, it recalls the classic John Knowles novel A Separate Peace. Here, a successful architect named Dennis gets word that his childhood chum Scooter Thomas has died. That event becomes the catalyst for Dennis' reflection on his friend and their relationship, whereupon the play flashes back to a series of childhood episodes in which we experience Dennis and Scooter as they were in school and at play, maturing physically and emotionally.
Actor-producers Shawn Whitsell and Patrick James make up the two-person cast, and they emote and narrate their way through the story, a mix of poignance and humor. They also direct themselves, and the play's flow is uneven one minute and playful the next, often grasping to find its rhythms. There were enough high points in the opening weekend to presume that with a few more performances, the show will jell together more cohesively. Scooter Thomas runs through Jan. 30.