A Family Seeks the American Dream in Skylight Music Theater’s ‘Raisin’

The Younger family in the musical “Raisin” embodies the classic American dream.

Walter Lee (J. Daughtry) wants to start his own business. Beneatha (Camara Stampley) plans to go to medical school. And matriarch Lena (Wydetta Carter) longs to buy a house with a small yard.

But these are working-class blacks from 1950s Chicago, which may make the American dream seem like a distant mirage.

The Skylight Music Theater opened its production of the musical Friday night, directed and choreographed by Kenneth L. Roberson and directed by Christie Chiles Twillie. This 1974 Tony winner was adapted from Lorraine Hansberry’s drama “A Raisin in the Sun” by a team that included Hansberry’s ex-husband Robert Nemiroff.

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“Raisin” has a 70s-style, R&B-influenced score with elements of jazz and gospel. Sometimes he calls in big voices, which he has in Daughtry and Carter.

With Mama Lena in charge, three generations live in a small apartment, sharing a bathroom down the hall with nosy neighbor Mrs. Johnson (Raven Dockery). Walter Lee is a white man’s chauffeur; his wife Ruth (Melanie Loren) and Lena both work as servants.

When a $10,000 insurance settlement comes after the death of Lena’s husband, Walter Lee wants the money invested in a liquor store, which Lena objects on moral grounds. She sets aside three thousand dollars for Beneatha’s education, then surprises her family with a down payment on a house in the all-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. The neighborhood association sends a mealy-mouthed representative (Chase Stoeger) to urge them not to move there.

Walter Lee rarely thinks of anything but his obsession with the liquor store and a future life of money. Daughtry’s energy and charisma make the character more tragic than heinous. Crushing poverty has made the Youngers harsh on each other verbally, even physically: there is a slap in the face that is truly shocking.

Suffering with this family as they hurt each other, my favorite musical moment comes when Walter Lee, Ruth, and Beneatha turn their anger outward to mock the genteel white racism of the neighborhood association with “Not Anymore.”

Carter tenderly serenades Lena’s houseplant with “A Whole Lotta Sunlight”, revealing that Mama is more than just tough love. If you want to start a discussion after the show, ask who owns this piece, Walter Lee’s or Mama’s?

Milwaukee’s Stampley brings the right mix of innocence and swagger to college student Beneatha, both in her interactions with the Younger family and her time with her African suitor Asagai (Denzel Taylor).

Roberson’s staging uses ensemble member Ella Lakey surprisingly and effectively as a dance soloist in scenes ranging from a tavern to a church.

Contact Jim Higgins at jim.higgins@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.

If you are going to

Skylight Music Theater presents “Raisin” through April 24 at the Broadway Theater Center, 158 N. Broadway. To visit skylightmusictheatre.org or call (414) 291-7800.

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