For the very first time, Arena Stage presents an American classic “A Raisin in the Sun” from March 31 through May 7.
Headliners Dawn Ursula (as Ruth Younger) and Will Cobbs (as Walter Lee Younger) reveal how the cast and director Tazewell Thompson intend to reinvent this enduring African-American play.
“Things are syncing up for this role,” hints Ursula, the actress portraying Ruth, a pragmatic pessimist, Walter Lee’s wife and Travis’ mother. “I am able to walk in Ruth’s shoes on a deeper, more honest level.”
A common challenge in producing older, well-known stories lies in translating their themes to a present-day audience. According to Cobbs and Ursula, however, “Raisin” faces no such struggle.
“Lorraine Hansberry is a genius,” Ursula said of the playwright. “The play is timeless.”
In other words, the societal and interfamily struggles among black people in the 1950s still endure today.
“Walter Lee speaks to me as a young black man now, when I first saw it, and the six times after that,” Cobbs said. “I see reflections of my father and mother’s father in his character. His is a story that all young black men know.”
And, Ursula said, there is some indirect help from a surprisingly helpful element: Donald Trump.
“It doesn’t hurt that the political environment these days is strikingly similar to the 1950s,” she laughed.
Lorraine Hansberry’s drama, which takes place during the late-1950s in a Southside Chicago apartment, chronicles the life of an African-American family after the matriarch Mama receives a substantial insurance check following the death of her husband, Walter Younger Sr. Each member of the family jockeys for the money as it represents the one hope each has to fund and fulfill their dreams—though there’s only enough for one.
Both actors discover how their lives fundamentally mirror those of the fictional, yet almost ancestral characters Hansberry created.
“I played Ruth once years ago in Baltimore, but a lot has changed since then,” Ursula said. “I’m a different person now.”
Ruth and Ursula’s lives have aligned in more ways than one.
“Stepping into Ruth now feels natural. I have an 8-year-old daughter, and [Ruth’s son] Travis is 10.” Ursula said. “I’ve been married for 12 years, and Ruth and Walter have been married for 11 years.”
Cobbs echoes this assertion.
“In some ways, my life has been a preparation to play Walter Lee,” Cobbs said, noting the similarities in his and the character’s age and big-city upbringings. “We both have the same aspirations, in terms of what we want our lives to look like and how we want to provide for our families.”
Any actor may find it daunting to follow such iconic original cast members in Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee and, 50 years later, Denzel Washington and Audra McDonald on Broadway as Walter Lee and Ruth. However, Ursula and Cobbs said they feel a comfort and familiarity with their characters that renders the roles uniquely their own.
“We make ‘Raisin’ fresh by honestly relating to our characters rather than copying the likes of Poitier or Washington in a way that many might recognize instantly,” Cobbs said. “The stories are so real that I can show myself through Walter rather than be mistaken for a copy of Sidney.”
“A Raisin in the Sun” truly comes together under director Tazewell Thompson’s creative and encouraging direction.
“He told us to treat this like a new play,” Will describes.
Ursula said that Tazewell’s strategy involved giving the cast two versions of the script to work with — one with all stage directions removed.
“Tazewell gives a lot of space for exploration,” Cobbs said. “He’s an excellent collaborator without being a dictator. I feel like we’re co-birthing — we’re absolutely following his direction, and he leaves space for us to grow within it.”
Arena Stage’s production also features Joy Jones (as Beneatha Younger), Lizan Mitchell (as “Mama” Lena Younger), Bueka Uwemedimo (as Joseph Asagai) and Jeremiah Hasty (as Travis Younger).
For tickets and showtimes, visit Arena Stage’s website at http://www.arenastage.org/shows-tickets/the-season/#seven.