‘Raisin in the Sun’ at Port Tobacco Players brightens Black family story

The production serves as a ceremony, praising the perseverance of the Black American household in a way that allows viewers hope.

By Isaac Welch

The Port Tobacco Players’ production of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun brings to life the tale of the mid-century Black American household in an endearing display, highlighting the jovial narratives that often otherwise are overshadowed by plight and dismay. The volunteer organization brings together a cast of naturally gifted actors and actresses who at all times live at home in their roles and complement each other’s energy with willing chemistry. Paired with an ornately set stage, this production far exceeds the expectations one may hold of volunteer-based theater, yet at the same time, it maintains the wholesome reverberations of a tightly knit community.

Marleigh Ferguson as Ruth Younger, Gershawn Mason as Walter Younger, Ethan Thomas as Travis Younger, and Isaiah Fisher as a moving man in ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’ Photo by Rachel Wallace.

In his director’s note, Jeremy Keith Hunter declares that “A Raisin in the Sun is not about hardship. It’s not a play about depression or loss. [It’s] a story about family, and about love… The people in this play are proud. They are energetic, funny and smart…  They are every bit as loving, joyful and passionate as they are worn, disheartened and exhausted. It was my intention,” he states, “to highlight the former of these traits — to present a family that modern audiences could relate to and understand.” In service to his community, Hunter accomplishes the task of telling the truth and brightening the narratives of the Black family that are often masked and told sullenly when recounted in America’s history. In this tale, underscored by the pursuit of financial liberation, the dynamics of the Southside Chicago-based Younger family are examined in contrast to the desires of each individual, as the family quarrels over how to best spend insurance money awarded to them after their father’s death. Dreams of business enterprise, medical school, and improved housing are lobbied for, and battled against by the discrimination and racial barriers that characterized those times, but are ultimately left to the decision of the inheritor, Lena “Mama” Younger.

In a recent showing on Mother’s Day, the Port Tobacco Players theater swelled with an atmosphere of love in community, where the play’s central themes, exploring the preservation of the matriarch and her weathered spirit, were duly understood. Maintaining the heartbeat of her household, Mama Younger, played by Dionne Belk, lives undeterred by her age, bringing unity to her household and establishing the grounds they must abide by. Belk’s confidence as she asserts her role solidifies Mama Younger as the pillar that holds her family together and brings them to well-being. Raising her voice, shaping her face to a smile, or narrowing to a stare, her act as the Grandmother undoubtedly arises from familiarity, harkening to a generation that has so dearly cared, as seen in the proliferation of America’s Black community.

While this rendition presented itself in a brighter tint, Hunter and his cast did not withhold the gut-wrenching performances that for 75 years have struck a nerve in the hearts of audiences across America and earned the play’s reputation as a classic. Most notable is Gershawn A. Mason’s portrayal of Walter Younger. Rising on drunken mania and crashing on robbery and disenfranchisement, Mason’s expressions range from heightened jubilee dancing to guttural bellows roaring on sunken knees. In his character, Mason lives the story of the Black man-of-the-house, burdened and misunderstood by the society around him, at all times exuding his passion for the art of theater. In partnership with his wife Ruth Younger, played by Marleigh Ferguson, the two endure their love tested by the hardships a white society has cast upon them, but at no point fall out of synchronicity in their act together on stage. Warm, receptive, and sternly spoken, Ferguson gracefully adapts in each scene as she navigates her role as a wife, mother, sister, and daughter-in-law. Her relationship with her child Travis Younger (Ethan Thomas) is warmly established in the play’s opening scene as she picks his hair and smothers him in a hug before he leaves for school. She holds her own in contentious meetings with her in-laws, persevering under the wing of Mama Younger and standing up for her husband against the degradation of sister Beneatha Younger (Angela Alexander).

TOP LEFT: Keith Coates as Joseph Asagai and Angela Alexander as Beneatha Younger; TOP RIGHT: Gershawn Mason as Walter Younger and Ethan Thomas as Travis Younger; ABOVE: Dionne Belk as Mama (Lena Younger), Marleigh Ferguson as Ruth Younger, Anthony Dieguez as Karl Lindner, Gershawn Mason as Walter Younger, and Ethan Thomas as Travis Younger, in ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’ Photos by Rachel Wallace.

Somewhat of an antagonist to her family’s ways, Beneatha Younger spends most of her time in the play acting on her right to independence, exploring passions, and pursuing a doctorate degree. In her act, Alexander seldom deviates from her tone, counter-culture and full of angst, which is best utilized in conversations with elders and lovers, as she looks to stave off the antiquated expectations of a patriarchal society. As she explores avenues closer to her origins, audience members are reminded of the cultural juxtapositions that complicate the lives of African Americans still today.

As the play meets its climatic moments, the audience is rewarded with a sense of triumph, and though it is a small victory in a large and ongoing battle, Hunter’s direction and the cast’s exploration of the play’s themes work well to celebrate the Younger family’s success. In this light, the production of this famed play serves as a ceremony, praising the perseverance of the Black American household, in such a way that allows viewers to review their journey with the hope necessary to continue the push toward liberation. Should it be that the stories of Black Americans and their histories are told with intention as Hunter saw it — not as depression and a struggle against a system, but as the love and passion that binds a family — a better future may result for all.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

A Raisin in the Sun plays through May 19, 2024 (Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, Sunday at 3 PM), at Port Tobacco Players, 508 Charles Street, La Plata, MD. Tickets ($15–$18) can be purchased online.

COVID Safety: For all performances, masks are suggested but not required.

Isaac Welch is a journalist based in Southeast Washington, DC.

A Raisin in the Sun
Written by Lorraine Hansberry
Produced by Heather Bauer
​Directed by Jeremy Hunter

CAST
Walter Younger: Gershawn Mason
Beneatha Younger: Angela Alexander
Mama (Lena Younger): Dionne Belk
Ruth Younger: Marleigh Ferguson
Travis Younger: Ethan Thomas
Joseph Asagai: Keith Coates
George Murchison: Jeremy Keith Hunter
Karl Lindner: Anthony Dieguez
Bobo: Ren Smith
Mrs. Johnson: Erica Chester
Karl Lindner (Understudy): Mike Gahan
Moving Man & Bobo (Understudy): Isaiah Fisher

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