“Honey, life don’t have to be like this. I mean, sometimes people can do things so that things are better.”
So says Ruth Younger to her husband Walter in a poignant moment in A Raisin in the Sun, at Arena Stage through May. The characters from Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play from 1959 are bold to the point of being larger-than-life as they tell the tale of the Younger family.
Together, the Youngers suffer from racism, poverty, the usual family dynamics and the rift between generations. These themes are all the more compelling for their timelessness – and timeliness – considering the plight low-income African American families still face today.
Ruth is a character that resists easy categorization. She is not the grand matriarch of the family, Lena, or the ambitious, “modern” younger sister, Beneatha. Ruth is in the middle in every way possible. She’s a wife who wants to better her marriage, a daughter who respects her elders and a mother raising a son in a difficult climate. Her role in the family is defined by her relationship to others, and she does not have much voice of her own.
Enter local actress Dawn Ursula. This is her second time playing Ruth, but the elusive character is complex enough to keep challenging her.
“Ruth is the bridge to everyone,” Ursula says. “She is the peacekeeper. At the same time, [in] moments of great desperation, she asks for what she needs.”
It’s these moments where the actress shines best, though you’ll never forget her presence hovering in the background while the rest of the characters argue with one another and fight together for a better life.
Ursula is a powerhouse player who has been acting in the DC area for more than 20 years, including her previous Arena Stage performance in 2013’s Love in Afghanistan. She is the winner of two Helen Hayes Awards for her work, including performances at Round House, Woolly Mammoth, Everyman and the Kennedy Center.
“I’m lucky and fortunate that I can say I’m doing this full-time,” the genuinely humble actress says of her career.
For Ursula, part of the appeal in playing Ruth was the chance to work with director Tazewell Thompson again.
“Tazewell has been doing this forever, and he knows how to put an ensemble together,” she says. “He is one of the most encouraging and empowering directors I’ve ever worked with.”
He is also sure to give the actors and crew much-needed downtime, which seems to work well. Ursula says that he’s consistently telling them, “Go home. Enjoy your family. Do your laundry.”
With fewer hours in rehearsal, the cast and crew give time together their full attention. Ursula is particularly excited to perform in the round on Arena’s Fichlander Stage.
“I’ve not performed in the round before,” she says. “I love how it allows me to interact with the other characters.”
Ursula also credits Hansberry with developing a cast of characters that are recognizable to almost anyone. The actress says the playwright’s genius was “to write this intimate, personal family drama and yet deliver these huge, epic, socioeconomic and political ideas and themes.”
“It will be refreshing and surprising,” Ursula says of Arena’s production. “Your soul will nod in agreement. This play is so relevant, and immensely powerful – like a new play.”
A Raisin in the Sun runs through May 7 at Arena Stage. Visit the website for ticket prices and showtimes.
Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org