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A Queens theatre company puts Raisin in the spotlight
Over the past 13 years, Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun, about the struggles of an African-American family in segregated Chicago, has enjoyed two starry Broadway revivals: in 2004 with Sean Combs and 2014 with Denzel Washington, racking up five Tony Awards between them. There was also a time-hopping riff on Hansberry's original, Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, which snagged the 2011 Pulitzer and went on to a Tony-winning 2012 Main Stem run. Yet strangely, despite the continued popularity and pertinence of the play, its 1973 musicalization, simply titled Raisin, has been virtually absent from NYC stages since its Broadway run ended 42 years ago.
It's not like the show was a flop. On the contrary, it played more than two years, won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and featured early career performances by future big names like Emmy winners Joe Morton and Debbie Allen. (Fun fact: Three decades later, Allen's sister, Phylicia Rashad, went on to earn a Tony for her performance in the 2004 revival of A Raisin in the Sun.) From time to time the show's merits have been debated on theatre chat boards -- granted, it's a period piece, but so is its source material. Yet even with an available original cast recording and some grainy video from the 1974 Tonys to stoke interest, the musical seemed doomed to obscurity.
Which is exactly why the Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC) decided to mount it at long last. Founded in 2001, the professional Queens theatre company is known for reviving worthy musicals that haven't been seen on local boards for a while, like The Secret Garden, Triumph of Love, and Allegro (the season before Classic Stage Company did it). "That's something I give credit to my predecessor, Tom Wojtunik, for," says Raisin helmer Dev Bondarin, who took over as APAC's artistic director in 2014. "It was something I noticed as an APAC fan prior to being a staff member. I am very interested in lesser-known musicals and Tom was, too. That attracted me to the company, seeing them do professional work with high production values that was not Oklahoma! but something off the beaten track."
Although Bondarin had learned about Raisin while taking a musical theatre history class as an undergrad at Brandeis University, she hadn't thought much about it until a writer she admired suggested APAC do it. "I ran to the Drama Book Shop and bought the libretto and listened to the songs and really fell in love with it," Bondarin recalls. Since the co-author of the book was Hansberry's former husband/literary executor Robert Nemiroff, it's no surprise that the musical hews closely to her play (minus a few subplots) about the Younger family, whose members clash over how to use the late patriarch's insurance payout. Prodigal son Walter Lee Younger, a dad himself, hopes to invest in a liquor store while his elderly mother, Lena Younger, envisions buying a home in a nicer neighborhood.
While it's doubtful any of the creators of Raisin will ring a bell (Nemiroff collaborated with Charlotte Zaltzberg on the book; Judd Woldin wrote the music, a mix of gospel, blues, legit, and light '70s pop; and Robert Brittan the straightforward lyrics), Bondarin believes the famous title should attract curious audiences. "Most people I mention it to are like, 'There's a musical of that?!'" she says. "It felt like an interesting choice from that perspective, but also I'm very interested in time periods and how things play years after they were originally done. I feel like this is as important today as in the '50s when it's set, and also 1973 when the musical premiered. It feels very relevant. It's really interesting to talk to audiences on their way out to hear their response to this new-to-them version of a story they know."
During the audition process (run by a casting director who turned out to be a huge fan of the musical, which was helpful), Bondarin found that about half of the actors were aware of the show but "none of them had ever seen it because nobody ever does it!" she says. "It was a wonderful awakening for everybody."
Back in school, Ebony Marshall-Oliver had been assigned the show's 11 o'clock number, "Measure the Valleys,", sung by matriarch Lena about her wayward son, so she knew of the show. But she was surprised to discover, save for a brief 1981 mounting at the now-defunct Equity Library Theater, Raisin had not had a professional NYC production -- not even at Encores! -- until now. "I am shocked that it's never been revived because the music is so great and it enhances the story so well," she says. Though Marshall-Oliver was originally called in to read for the more age-appropriate character of Ruth, Walter's wife, she ended up as Lena due to her talent and, perhaps, a bit of kismet. "This time around, singing the part, I have a little bit more context because I am a mom now, that feeling of wanting the best for your children," she says. "Also, I have been having a lot of talks with my grandmother, who I am blessed to still have in my life -- she's 82 and still going strong. Being able to call her and talk to her about some things made it easier for me to understand than I did ten years ago."
Since APAC works under the Equity Showcase Code, Raisin's run is limited to four weeks. But Bondarin, Marshall-Oliver, and others involved in the production hope this run cultivates interest in this almost forgotten show. "Now that we're doing it, maybe it will get some buzz," says Marshall-Oliver. "I'm telling all the people I know, come see Raisin, and nine times out of ten they're like, 'I've never heard of this.'" It's time for Raisin to be thrust back into the sunlight.
Top image: Warren Nolan, Jr. and Ebony Marshall-Oliver in the foreground. Photos by Michael R. Dekker
Tickets to Raisin are available through TDF's Off-Off@$9 Program.