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'Raisin' Has Meaning For Ethnic Mix

March 11, 2006
Commentary By Stan Simpson

Frances McAlpine Sharp's routine won't change much for the rest of the month. The actress and Weaver High School drama coach frets about her script, checks the voice mail often and watches as many shows and rehearsals of "A Raisin in the Sun" at Hartford Stage as she can.

Sharp, a Hartford resident in her 26th year teaching English in the city, is the understudy for Lynda Gravátt, who plays family matriarch Lena Younger in the acclaimed play. It's a leading role.

The show has been among the most successful in the 43-year history of the Hartford Stage. The theater has added eight shows to the scheduled run of 34. More than 17,000 tickets have been sold.

What's made the show a smash here is that it is attracting an ethnic audience - mostly African Americans and West Indians - and students in addition to Hartford Stage's older white subscriber base. With this play the theater has scripted a primer for what a business has to do when its core clientele is aging.

Instead of resisting the emerging demographics in its back yard, Hartford Stage is embracing it - or at least trying to. And whether it's a corporation, a theater company or - ahem - a major metropolitan newspaper, providing products that appeal to your new market is the way to stay relevant.

Lorraine Hansberry's 1956 play is about a Chicago working class black family striving for a better life - and how stress over money, relationships and race adds drama to their ambitions. It's a mostly black ensemble, but the story line is universal.

"Families dealing with situations with love and caring, and people trying to reach self-actualization," Sharp said. "Some of the things they were talking about 50 years ago are still happening. From the first reading, I knew it was going to be excellent because the actors are wonderful and the director is excellent. If you do shows that are relevant to people's lives, then folks who might not ordinarily go are going to come to the theater as well."

I attended Thursday night's showing with my wife, mother and mother-in-law. (Thankfully, the bar was open.) I'm not much of a theater guy. But after this 2-hour and 45-minute play, I'm reconsidering. Good acting. Good story line. Good show.

What are underplayed in this production are the local connections.

Khaleef Pemberton, 11, a fifth grader at Annie Fisher Magnet School in Hartford, plays Travis Younger, the son of Walter Lee and Beneatha Younger. Khaleef's understudy is 12-year-old Marcquille Johnson of Hartford, who attends Plainville Middle School. Both are students at the Artists Collective in North Hartford.

Billy Eugene Jones, who plays Walter Lee, is a Yale School of Drama alum. Crystal Noelle, who plays Beneatha, is a graduate of Miss Porter's School in Farmington.

Dollie McLean, co-founder of the Artists Collective, said at their best the arts have always provided an outlet for young people to learn about themselves, their culture and how others deal with adversity.

"A Raisin in the Sun" makes you think. It holds your attention. It's generating attention.


Hartford Stage website -- http://www.hartfordstage.org

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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