(photo by Malcolm Ali)
By Joy Childs
Sentinel Contributing Writer
Native Angeleno Theatregoers-and transplanted New Yorkers-who yearn for good Black Theatre in the community have, since 2007, taken solace in the fact that it is alive and well at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. But a new bar has been set with the Center’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” the first fully staged production of Lorraine Hansberry’s play in more than 20 years.
A spectacular gala heralding the opening of “Raisin” brought out a host of stars of stage, screen and television and their spouses, among them Hattie Winston and Harold Wheeler, La Tanya Richardson Jackson, Blair Underwood, Tavis Smiley, Forest Whitaker, Don Cheadle, Glynn Turman, Eriq La Salle, Robert Guillaume, John Wesley, James Ingram, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Margaret Avery. Of course, Phylicia Rashad was there-not in her Tony-winning role as matriarch Lena Younger, Rashad was making her Los Angeles directorial debut. And if you think there’s no way an L.A. production at its only African American professional Theatre company could come anywhere near any well-known production-e.g., the 1959 Broadway play or the 2004 Broadway revival-you’d be sorely mistaken.
Yes, the play about the Younger family, living on Chicago’s Southside, was written in 1959. Yes, it didn’t have a big-named cast. But in the hands of a cast Rashad called “accomplished actors,” one which “invested so much trust in her direction,” there was little doubt that the cast, the sets and the dialogue all hit their marks. With L. Scott Caldwell (matriarch Lena); Kevin Carroll (the son); Deidrie Henry (Ruth); Kenya Alexander (Beneatha); Jason Dirden (George Muchison); Amad Jackson (Joseph Asagai); Brandon David Brown (Travis); and Scott Morenson (Mr. Lindner), much of the play, its humor, its pathos and emotion still resonate today, as many of the stars attested to:
Rashad’s sister Debbie Allen expressed a great deal of pride, saying that Phylicia has been in the background long enough and “I’m glad she’s finally getting her due.”
Hattie Winston: I thought this production was flawless. I thought the acting was great, and I thought the direction was superb. I was just telling my husband that a lot of times, people, when they do this play, because they think they know it, they tend to overact-and with this production you got all the subtleties of Miss Hansberry’s writing.
Robert Guillaume: I thought it was a very powerful presentation of a piece that still holds up. This production was wonderful-stellar.
John Wesley: You know, it’s funny: You come to see a play that you think you know-and then you get moved by it-and that tells you that the play itself has gravitas and it holds up. It was beautiful.
Glynn Turman, who, at age 13, originated the role of Travis Younger on Broadway opposite Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Diana Sands (but did not play the role when it became a film in 1961), called this production “fresh,” adding that he was saying many of Brandon Brown’s lines in unison in his head during the play
When he was asked how he felt having Turman in the audience, Brandon Brown responded: “It felt very good.”
LAS: Were you excited?
BB: No, not really. I’ve been in an acting group before. . .
He elaborated: He’s been acting 5 years-“professionally, for 3 years.” He’s 10, by the way.
Charles Franklin, Manager of Corporate Services for the American Honda Company, one of the production’s sponsors “felt the play was outstanding,” saying he planned to bring some young people to see it.
As managing director of the Ebony Repertory Theatre (ERT), Gayle Hooks “absolutely loved it. I have watched it evolve over the past month and the intensity in that room-all of the actors coming together-I mean, really touching each other-really deep emotion -it was-this is the best I’ve seen.
. . Phylicia Rashad brought so much to it-after having done it on Broadway and won the Tony Award. . .”
When Wren T. Brown, ERT Founder/Producer was asked, “How do you feel about this production? To have your own son at this Theatre at this time? and to have Glynn Turman in the house? What kinds of emotions were you feeling as you watched you son?”
WB: I had to stop from crying all night because of the significance-it means the world to me. . .
The play runs through April17 at the NHPAC, 4718 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 964-9766 or go to www.ebonyrep.org.