Amanda Hodges reviews the Lyric’s production of Lorraine Hansbury’s powerful play.

When Lorraine Hansberry’s play opened on Broadway in 1959 it caused an immediate sensation, allowing a glimpse into a section of the community rarely given a voice let alone a dramatic profile.

“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
Langston Hughes

A powerful yet lyrical portrait of a black American family in 1950s Chicago, it fully deserves its place in the pantheon of classic American drama, displaying many similarities with the best of Arthur Miller’s work. The Young Vic’s superb production first appeared three years ago and is now on tour.

Cooped up in a tiny flat, eking out a meagre living with his family Walter Lee Younger (Lennie James) dreams of opening up a liquor store as soon as his mother’s $10,000 insurance cheque arrives. His wife longs for a proper home, his sister to pursue her vocation as a doctor whilst his mother simply wants to ensure the family’s survival.

Walter’s hopes for personal salvation lie at the heart of the play as he feels himself emasculated, his personal redemption dependent upon securing the necessary funds to launch himself in business. When his mother Lena ( the superb Novella Nelson) reveals other plans for the money, it looks as if the die is cast for Walter’s future but the way he retrieves his dignity in the face of prejudice and poverty is what makes this play so deeply moving and such a powerful testament to the unquenchable tenacity of the human spirit.

As the play begins, the words of Langston Hughges’ poem flicker over the stage with the spectre of dreams deferred hanging over the ensuing drama. There’s much profundity here but one of the delightful aspects of this drama is the way it celebrates the incidental: the family’s queue for the bathroom first thing in the morning, the spontaneous dance Walter and his wife Ruth enjoy at the prospect of a tangibly better future, Lena’s happiness at finally gaining some proper gardening tools, they may seem small moments but immeasurably enrich the play overall.

Novella Nelson is magnificent as the family matriarch Lena. Gruff yet kind, she’s a fully rounded character who misjudges her son but possesses enough largesse of spirit to make amends for her error. The scene where she rebukes Walter’s sister Beneatha (Nicole Charles) for her lack of concern towards him is intensely poignant, written with a real understanding for human foibles and the overriding need for compassion. Everything about this production – from David Lan’s first-class direction to the uniformly excellent ensemble – oozes class.

A Raisin in the Sun will be returning to London at the Hackney Empire 3-7 May.

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