Anette Kauahikaua gives the performance of her career, starring with Trevor Graham in "A Raisin in the Sun."

Raisin’ the roof

The Actors Group offers
a memorable production
of a stage classic

Leonard Piggee and his Honolulu African-American Repertory Theatre aren't a part of The Actor Group's second annual presentation of an "African-American drama," but director Brad Powell and a strong cast make TAG's solo production of "A Raisin in the Sun" a substantial and memorable one. And, while some people find it convenient to describe "Raisin" as "black theater," many of the issues it addresses transcend race or ethnicity.

"A Raisin in the Sun": Presented by The Actors Group at The Yellow Brick Studio, 625 Keawe St. 7:30 p.m. today, Friday, Saturday, and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $10. Call: 722-6941 or e-mail tickets@taghawaii.org.

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry drew on personal experiences in describing the hopes, dreams and disappointments of African Americans in the 1950s. Recently widowed Mama Younger wants to use the $10,000 check from her late husband's life insurance policy to buy a home in a better neighborhood. Her son, Walter Lee, wants to invest the money in a liquor store so he can provide more for his wife and son than he can as a chauffeur. Daughter Beneatha, the first family member to go to college, wants to use the money for her medical school tuition.

It's a tribute to TAG that it is hard to single out a "star" in the tight-knit ensemble. Trevor Graham accomplishes the crucial task of establishing all Lee's flaws and weaknesses without making him seem villainous or unsympathetic. Della Graham, his real-life mother, looks and sounds the part of a strong and embattled matriarch who's spent her life struggling to keep her family together and moving forward, but who realizes that her children must be allowed to make their own decisions in a troubled and changing world.

Lillian Jones has no challenge winning our sympathy as upwardly mobile Beneatha, whose rudeness to her mother -- which got Jones such a slap on opening night that her cheek remained red for most of Act I -- is appalling but understandable. Why shouldn't she believe that her success depends on her own initiative?

Anette Kauahikaua gives a career-best performance as Lee's loyal but beleaguered wife as she successfully negotiates all the role's emotional twists and turns.

Derrick K. Brown is entertaining as Joe Asagai, a militant Nigerian college student who challenges Beneatha to stop "mutilating" (straightening) her hair, and eventually asks her to return to Nigeria with him. Brown keeps his light British-English accent in place, and succeeds in creating the impression that Asagai may have been toying with Beneatha at first but becomes more sincere with each encounter.

Can Daryl Emanuel be faulted if his portrayal of wealthy George Murchison comes off as less than a total male chauvinist cad? True, Murchison's comment about wanting a wife who is beautiful rather than intelligent or well educated sounds much more outrageously chauvinistic now than it would have in 1959 -- so much so that George seems almost a sitcom caricature. On the other hand, the outrage about Murchison being in favor of "assimilation" rings hollow, given that his "assimilated" family possesses wealth and economic position that most "Negroes" could only dream of.

With meticulously groomed eyebrows, his eyes dancing with glee as he delivers each outrageous line, Emanuel puts a spin on the role that's a bit of Urkel and considerably more Chatsworth Osbourne Jr. In doing so, Emanuel gives TAG's "Raisin" most of its comic content.

Judith Henry brings a more conventional style of abrasive snideness to the show playing the Youngers' jealous and catty neighbor, and John Mussack may get boos after some performances for his work as the creepy representative of a group that offers the Youngers more money than their new house is worth to keep them from moving into an "all white" neighborhood.

Many who squeeze into the tiny Yellow Brick Theatre over the next month will be renewing their acquaintance with "Raisin" and its vivid characters. Hopefully many others will take the opportunity to experience this contemporary American classic for the first time.

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