'Sun' still shines a light on an American dream

Continuing to emerge as a major entertainment presence in Annapolis, Compass Rose Theater has opened its fourth season with Lorraine Hansberry's powerful 1959 drama, "A Raisin in the Sun," visiting issues of justice and equal opportunity that continue to resonate with audiences today.

Groundbreaking 55 years ago as the first Broadway play written by a black female author, "A Raisin in the Sun" not only changed American theater, but offered hope for a future when the dreams of African-American families would no longer be deferred.

The Compass Rose production establishes in a prologue our contemporary reality, where segregation restricting neighborhoods by race largely no longer exists. It also underscores Hansberry's vision in depicting an upwardly mobile black family that refuses to bend to prejudice by asserting its right to live in a neighborhood of its choice.

In the starting point of the production, the work's honesty and profundity is beautifully portrayed.

This sensitive production results from Compass Rose founding artistic director and show producer Lucinda Merry-Browne's choice of Lottie Porch-Bright as director.

In her third time directing "Raisin," 30-year educator, actor and director sets a benchmark for making a classic work breathe with new vitality.

An ensemble of nine gifted actors illuminate the script. Not only are the 1950s authentically depicted, but the mood is bolstered by an impeccably chosen selection of music from artists who defined the era, including Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday, whose "God Bless the Child" explores the depths of a life in poverty.

The plot of Hansberry's drama traces the journey of five black family members as they pursue the American dream. Living in a cramped apartment on Chicago's South Side, they await recently widowed matriarch Lena Younger's $10,000 insurance check. Lena wants to buy a house in the suburbs, and daughter-in-law Ruth shares this goal, hoping her son, Travis, and his unborn sibling will have their own space.

Lena's 35-year-old son, Walter, wants to trade his chauffeur job for a partnership in a liquor store that will provide money for a better life for his family. His sister, Beneatha, a college student, wants to use some of the insurance money for medical school.

The central figure of Walter is movingly played by Kahlil Daniel, who studied at the British American Drama Academy and is a member of Actors' Equity. Daniel conveys Walter's desperate frustration with his job and guilt resulting from his inability to provide for his wife and son. He lightens the mood in Walter's bantering with Beneatha that includes delivering an easy parody of her African dance.

Beneatha is portrayed by New York actress Nikole Williams, who makes a memorable Annapolis debut at Compass Rose. Williams captures her character's youthful rebelliousness and an innate warmth reflecting true affection for her family.

Baltimore native Krenee Tolson has established an impressive career in Chicago and is playing her first role in her home state. She creates a memorable scene as bone-weary Ruth Younger, Walter's wife. Her concern for her husband and son motivates her to forge on supporting the shared dream of a better life.

As Lena Younger, award-winning actor-singer Theresa Cunningham delivers a charismatic portrayal of a deeply religious, caring mother who wants to give her family the security of a home in a better neighborhood.

Beneatha has two suitors — wealthy George Murchison and native African Joseph Asagai. Washington native Clayton Pelham, who has appeared in a number of roles in the region, makes a strong Compass Rose debut as Murchison. Stage and film actor Paul Cottman is convincing as Asagai.

Sixth-grader Noah Hughes of Salisbury is excellent as young Travis. Jim Osteen is cast in the lone white role as neighborhood association spokesman Karl Lindner, and Niko Tarlay delivers a moving portrayal of Walter's trusting friend Bobo, who shares the dream of going into business together.

All other aspects of this drama — set design, costumes and lighting — are first-rate, contributing to the production's polished excellence.

"A Raisin in the Sun" continues through Oct. 19 at Compass Rose Theater, 49 Spa Road, Annapolis. Tickets can be ordered at compassrosetheater.org or by calling the box office at 410-980-6662.

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