By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Almost everyone is familiar with the opening line of the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. “What happens to a dream deferred?” The short but impactful poem has inspired many including playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the author of “A Raisin in the Sun,” which opens with said poem.
The play follows Walter Lee and his family and the dreams they have for their futures from owning a liquor store and building generational wealth to buying a house and leaving a legacy to attending medical school and opening doors. Several years after its debut, the play inspired the musical “Raisin.”
Milwaukeeans and visitors will soon be able to see “Raisin” performed at the Skylight Music Theatre, 158 N. Broadway. The show will run from Friday, April 8 through Sunday, April 24 and tickets can be found at www.skylightmusictheatre.org.
“Because of the music, the joyous moments are heightened,” Kenneth L. Roberson, the show’s director and choreographer, said, adding that the sad moments accompanied by music are that much more realized.
Although the play first debuted in the late 1950s, the themes as well as the dreams and realities of the characters remain relevant today.
It’s a story about dreams, Roberson said.
Raven Dockery is a regular performer at Skylight. In this production, she plays Mrs. Johnson and Althea.
“It’s different than most musicals,” Dockery said. “This is really a play with music. The story, and the scenes are the most important part of the show. There is a lot of scene work, character work and a lot of trying to find the deeper meaning within in the scene.”
Christie Chiles Twillie is the music director for the show. The show’s prologue has an iconic sound that emulates the Black musicals that were written in the 70s, she said, it’s really great music.
“It was really great to work with them and help them feel the vibe of this vintage music,” she said on working with the actors. “All of them have such gorgeous voices, it was very fun to coach them.”
Some of the show’s songs include “Man Say” – performed by Walter Lee – “A Whole Lotta Sunlight” by Mama and “Sidewalk Tree” by Travis, the young son of Walter Lee and Ruth and more such as “Runnin’ to Meet the Man” and the “African Dance” number.
“The opening numbers gives you an idea of the lush and sophistication of the music,” Roberson added.
One of Dockery’s favorite scenes is when Walter Lee sings the song “You Done Right” to Mama. Another favorite of hers is the show’s closing scene.
It encapsulates the theme of unconditional love, Dockery said, adding that it’s a heartbreaking show but one filled with joy and hope.
It was fun, Roberson said, to collaborate with Twillie and work with talented people. Many of them are familiar with musical theatre and they were open and less resistent to trying things, he said.
“I love doing shows that have a beautiful story to tell that are relevant to today,” Dockery said.
The show is about African Americans trying to achieve the American dream, she said. The family is trying to move to a predominately white neighborhood, and they’re also trying to build generational wealth and leave a legacy behind.
These are topics that people are still familiar with today, Dockery said.
Dockery, who is an adjunct professor at Carthage College and a cosmetologist, has taught a class on the topic of race in theatre. She noted that when this show first debuted, white audience members weren’t comfortable with the depictions of the characters – they wanted to see the caricatures of Black people.
“This show is such a true, authentic, beautiful, Black story,” Dockery said. “I hope that people take away that there’s more to the Black community that doesn’t get showcased a lot, even on television. This is such a beautiful story to tell and for anybody to watch.”
Twillie noted that everyone can relate to the family depicted on stage.
“I think people will be able to relate to this family’s story in general,” Twillie said. “The closeness they have as a family, their ups and downs. Some of the light teasing and picking on each other, the joy and pain of motherhood…just this whole family unit is something that transcends time.”
Shawn Holmes, who plays Bobo Jones and a pastor, wanted to be a part of this show partly because of the story’s message.
“It tells an important story of perseverance and determination and dedication, even though sometimes the chips may be down you can still overcome adversity,” he said, noting that Walter Lee still finds a way to be the leader of the household even after losing the money.
A favorite moment of Holmes’ is a scene he shares with Dockery, in which they get to antagonize each other. It’s reminiscent of the relationship the two share off the stage, he said.
“Anytime I get to share the stage with my stage wife, anytime I get to sing with her, anytime I get to dance with her is going to be one of my favorite moments for sure,” Holmes said.
He hopes that the audience sees past the dialogue and dialect, which aren’t necessarily contemporary to this day and age.
“I would love for them [the audience] to be open-minded,” Holmes said, because the messages of perseverance and overcoming adversity and more remain relevant today.
Holmes, who also works as a nurse, said that it’s important to tell this story, especially in a city like Milwaukee where segregation persists.
“It’s important to keep telling the story that we’re here,” he said. “Everyone’s here, everyone just wants to live in harmony, and everyone just wants to be one community.”
As the troupe prepares to take this show to the stage, they’re looking forward to shedding the masks and being able to fully express themselves and to sharing the story with audience members.
In the end, it all comes back to dreams and what it means to keep reaching for dreams, no matter how far out of reach they seem.
“Everyone has aspirations, no matter how much that power that they have,” Roberson said.