"A Raisin in the Sun" Gets Back to Its Chicago Roots and Right in the Audience’s Faces

BY: Will Landon | Mar 7, 2018
Will Landon Raisin In the SunLorraine Hansberry’s classic 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, follows the Youngers, a black family whose successes allow them to move into a more well-off white neighborhood. But as they prepare for the change, various internal and external forces threaten to crush them. The story has resonated with audiences worldwide over the decades, but many people today believe that the issues it tackles—segregation, blatant racism, inescapable poverty—are the stuff of the past. PJ Powers, TimeLine Theatre’s artistic director, plans to shatter this perception and unearth some of the play’s less obvious themes with the company’s upcoming production. “Too many people think [the play is] just about a white guy stopping a black family from moving in, that it’s of a bygone era,” he says. ”[But] it’s also about the American dream and seeking opportunity, and the obstacles to that.” © Groupon A Truly Chicago Play As the company reintroduces Raisin’s conflicts to modern audiences, TimeLine urges visitors to immerse themselves in the script’s “Chicagoness.” Powers says the traditional version of the play hasn’t been produced here in more than a decade—the last being at Goodman Theatre in 2000. But he argues that one must understand the script’s Chicago setting to understand its globally relevant themes. “Chicago has always been a tale of two cities,” he explains, with the economic and social conditions of its citizens largely defined by geography. Issues such as business development or lack thereof, school closings, and violence contribute to drastically different opportunities in different neighborhoods. The dramaturge’s educational lobby display—always a key component of TimeLine’s productions—further details the city’s complex relationship with race. Art installations, educational murals, and nuggets of historical context invite audiences into the world of the play before they even enter the theater. Although it’s still in development, Powers says the display will feature a Chicago map that shows the ebbs and flows of the city’s various ethnic populations from the 1950s to today. Within Arm’s Reach TimeLine also brings the audience closer to A Raisin in the Sun’s themes by creating something one doesn’t usually encounter with the play: a sense of intimacy. “Most people have experienced this play in a larger space, perhaps a traditional proscenium, where there’s a built-in remove between audience and stage,” Powers says. But he and director Ron OJ Parson seek to buck this convention, bringing crowds directly into the Younger family’s living room. © Groupon In the past, spectators might have looked up onstage to see the open interior of the home, a set brimming with details of urban life such as the living-room couch where the Youngers’ son, Travis, sleeps. At TimeLine—where the theater only seats 99—patrons have the chance to sit within an arm’s reach of that couch. The audience will even enter the space in a way that makes them feel as though they’re walking into an apartment building. But Powers is staying mum on how they’ll accomplish this, wanting to keep it a surprise. The task of engaging the audience, however, ultimately falls to the actors. Greta Oglesby, whom Powers describes as “off-the-charts dynamic,” plays Mama Younger, the show’s emotional anchor. She builds on a long history with this production, having served as the standby for Phylicia Rashād’s Mama in the 2004 Broadway remount. Greta is accompanied by a cast who, though all under the age of 35 and fairly unknown in the local theater scene, possess a raw energy that becomes even more palpable when they’re nearly face to face with the audience. A Raisin in the Sun runs from Wednesday, August 28, to Sunday, November 17, at TimeLine Theatre (615 W. Wellington Ave.). See the website for showtimes. Photos courtesy of TimeLine Theatre Company