Within a Deaf Black family, a quietly explosive ‘Raisin in the Sun’

Visionaries of the Creative Arts revives its poignant Gallaudet production at Atlas.

A remarkable revival of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s classic about a Southside Chicago Black family, is now underway presented by Visionaries of the Creative Arts (VOCA) in the Lang Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center. This is actually a revival of a revival—this Raisin in the Sun, co-directed by Michelle Banks and Nayte Paxton, takes their 2018 production at Gallaudet University back to the stage.

The production features a Deaf, HoH (Hard of Hearing), CODA (Child of a Deaf Adult), and hearing cast. As noted in the press materials:

The audience will experience various forms of communication among characters in the play, i.e. mixed ASL/BASL, SimCom (simultaneous communication), and spoken English. These forms of communication represent what one may see in today’s society and Deaf culture.

And the audience will experience even more—an American masterpiece about Black Americans striving and struggling and facing a fundamental question: will an inheritance, a $10,000 check, get them their dreams? Layered on these central themes is one of communication: how do we express our hopes and dreams—and disappointments—with the ones we love? This struggle with communication is only emphasized and enlightened by this mixed Deaf and hearing cast.

Dr. Kojo Amissah (Walter Lee Younger), Mya Hunter (Beneatha Younger), and Jessica Tuitt (Ruth Younger) in ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’ Photo by Andrew Robertson.

As the poet Langston Hughes questions in his haunting poem “Harlem,” which inspired the play’s title: what happens to a dream deferred? We soon find out. This talented cast features a powerful, heartrending DJ James as Lena “Mama” Younger, Dr. Kojo Amissah as the torn-apart Walter Lee Younger, Jessica Tuitt as his wife Ruth, and Mya Hunter as Beneatha Younger, the college student aiming for medical school.

Two memorable scenes involve the only white character—in the only fully non-Deaf/non-signer role—as the representative from the all-white suburban neighborhood association. Played with appropriate awkwardness by Robert Rhoads in his first professional production, the arrival of the outsider ups the stakes for the Younger family. With Lena’s inheritance, she has bought the family a suburban home—they would be the first Black family in the town. In response, the neighborhood association has sent this representative to offer to persuade the family not to move in—and to purchase the property back.

These scenes bristle with tension. The communication challenge between this interloper and the Younger family is even more multilayered in this production—the outsider to the Deaf world, the white man in the 1950s with all his polite prejudice. In these scenes, Beneatha steps to the forefront as the hearing child to communicate between the sides, adding a tender anger to her words and signing. Layered, quietly explosive moments like this can make or break a theater piece, and these two scenes are among the many poignant, heartfelt moments that make this revival of A Raisin in the Sun.

In secondary roles, Keith Sho’Roc Brown as Joseph Asagi, the Nigerian suitor of Beneatha, excels as the charming suitor, as does Marcus J. Smith, as George, her white-shoed, pretentious college beau. Kayden Tuitt-Lyken as Travis Younger, the son of Walter Lee and Ruth, portrays cherubic delight and earnestness.

The scene design by Jonathan Mesich perfectly evokes the inner-city apartment of the proud but struggling Younger family. The transitional blues music riffs by sound designer Justin Schmitz and costumes designed by Ronnie Bradley are spot-on in the 1950s setting.

From top: Dr. Kojo Amissah (Walter Lee Younger), DJ James (Lena “Mama” Younger), and Jessica Tuitt (Ruth Younger); Mya Hunter (Beneatha Younger) and Dr. Kojo Amissah (Walter Lee Younger), in ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’ Photos by Andrew Robertson.

Importantly, a special nod to the voice actors—they added to the depth and seamless quality of this unique production: Phyllis Ballenger as Lena, Letitia Nadine Bynoe as Beneatha, Trina Redmond as Ruth, and Baakari Wilder as Walter Lee. For those not in the Deaf community, like myself, they not only gave voice to Hansberry’s words but complemented the powerful performances on stage.

Lastly, Michelle Banks and Nayte Paxton co-directed this remarkably layered production, which weaves together the experiences of discrimination, racism, economic struggles, tensions between Black working and educated classes, and Black Deaf culture, and with it makes  Raisin in the Sun, which premiered on Broadway in 1959, feel new.

While I have not seen other plays performed by a mixed Deaf and hearing cast, A Raisin in the Sun was in so many ways a perfect choice to experience the talent and diversity of the Deaf actors. Notably, VOCA is the new Resident Arts Partner at Atlas Performing Center, and Raisin in the Sun is its first full production this year. I am looking forward to seeing more from this company.

Running Time: Three hours and 10 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

A Raisin in the Sun plays through July 2, 2023, presented by Visionaries of the Creative Arts (VOCA) performing in the Lang Theatre in the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($40, general admission; $35, seniors) online.

COVID Safety: Masks are recommended but not required. The Atlas health and safety policy is here.

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Michelle Banks and Nayte Paxton

CAST: Jessica Tuitt as Ruth Younger, Keith “Sho’ Roc” Brown as Joseph Asagai, DJ James as Lena (Mama) Younger, Marcus Smith as George Murchison, Daniel Davidson as Bobo, Robert Rhoads Jr. as Karl Lindner, Mya Hunter as Beneatha Younger, Kojo Amissah as Walter Lee Younger, Kayden Tuitt-Lyken as Travis Younger, and Daniel Davidson Jr. as understudy for Travis.

VOICE ACTORS: Baakari Wilder voicing for Walter Lee, Phyllis Ballenger voicing for Lena (Mama), Trina Redmond voicing for Ruth, Letitia Bynoe voicing for Beneatha, Nayte Paxton voicing for Asagai and Bobo, Daniel Davidson II voicing for Travis.

PRODUCTION TEAM: Stage Managers – Fatimah Abdul-Rahim and Dorian Fletcher, Director of Artistic Sign Language – Felicia Williams, Costume Designer – Ronnie Bradley, Wardrobe Assistant – D’bora Ware, Sound Designer – Justin Schmitz, Light Designer – Helen Garcia-Alton, Light Associate – Lillie Kahkonen-Timlin, and Set Designer – Jonathan Mesich


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