In 1959, a young writer, Lorraine Hansberry, premiered, on Broadway, A Raisin In The Sun. The play tapped a vein of intense yearning and became an instant classic. It features one of the great American heroes: an old-fashioned yet powerful African-American woman, Mama Younger, who struggles to hold her family together in the face of an increasingly commercial national culture in which racial barriers were finally – but, oh, so slowly – starting to come down. Ms. Hansberry’s premature death (from cancer) a few years after the premiere elevated her to the status of national hero. What a marvelous gift this play has been.
Now playwright Thomas W. Jones II gives us A Cool Drink A Water (at Mixed Blood, 1401 S. 4th St., through Oct 10, mixedblood.com), a lovely homage to the Hansberry classic. The play reinforces Raisin‘s status even as it becomes an absorbing evening in its own right. Jones takes Raisin‘s characters – Mama (now a ghost), Walter, Ruthie, Beneatha (here called Benita), etc – but modernizes the story, setting it squarely in the 21st century. The house for which Mama paid $20,000 now stands in the way of a development and will fetch a cool million. Jones calls the question: can we, in the face of this kind of pressure, stay together as a family? The working out of this is passionate and surprisingly comic as, once again, the Youngers become an emblem of a changing African American culture.
Director Marion McClinton has assembled an excellent cast. Jones himself plays Walt, sinuous, always dancing, slightly goofy, often hootingly funny. Regina Marie Williams holds her own as Ruthie, Walt’s appealing wife. Sonja Parks, the diminutive actor with the gigantic stage presence, plays Benita and makes the potentially clunky device of the hidden pregnancy work. Ansa Akyea does wonders with upwardly mobile African, Asa. As the dreamy hip-hop poet, Trane, Nathan Barlow is wonderful. And, finally, we have Isabell Monk O’Connor as the ghost of Mama, surprisingly sly, calm, silently keeping everyone honest. These pros effortlessly sustain the talky sections of the play (this is not a criticism; these stretches of the drama are quite effective). I wish I had more space here to go on about this cast. First rate.
If you can, take a look at A Raisin In The Sun (the film version, very close to the play, streams on Netflix) before you see A Cool Drink A Water. But if you don’t have time, not to worry: this play is compelling on its own.
For more info about John, check out his website.