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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events.

Community Players’ latest asks Hughes’ age-old question: ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’

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Community Players Theatre
"A Raisin in the Sun" opens Jan. 7 at the Community Players Theatre in Bloomington, marking local performer Jennifer Rusk's directorial debut.

Community Players is gearing up to announce its 100th season in January. But with the current production of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” the nearly century old organization is still experiencing firsts.

Premiering Jan. 7 at Community Players Theatre in Bloomington, "A Raisin in the Sun" is based on a Langston Hughes' poem, "Harlem." The play is about the Youngers, a Black family living on Chicago’s south side in the mid-20th century. When the family’s patriarch dies, his life insurance provides a ticket to middle class life, but no one can agree on how best to get there.

Bloomington native Jennifer Rusk has long been seen acting and singing on stage at Community Players and in other local staples like Holiday Spectacular. For her directorial debut, the Illinois State University grad tackles this great American play — no small feat for a novice director, let alone one working during a pandemic.

Despite the challenges, Rusk said directing “A Raisin in the Sun” feels like a gift to the community.

“This is one of the first African American plays that has a large, African American ensemble on the stage of Community Players Theatre,” said Rusk, who is Community Players' first African American director. “It’s such a momentous event for Community Players and for Bloomington-Normal.”

Generational strife is a main theme of the play. As Walter Lee Younger (played by Anthony Overton) seeks to become the head of the family, his mother, Lena (Elaine Hill), clings to the old ways, while younger sister Berneatha (Darraugh Griffin) adopts a more radical world view.

Rusk said working with an intergenerational cast has been like “art imitating life.”

“Elaine Hill is able to speak toward the time period of the 1950s and how society was at that time for individuals who came from down south with the Great Migration,” Rusk said. “Whereas our Berneatha, Darraugh Griffin, is a collegiate young lady and has new thoughts and ideas.”

Berneatha Younger explores her heritage and identity as she interacts with Joseph Asagai (Omo Lolu), a young man from Nigeria. “A Raisin in the Sun” is set in the 1950s, but as Black Americans, it’s a theme to which the whole cast can relate.

“We’re able to pull from our everyday lives living in this skin,” Rusk said. “Our grandparents came from down south and survived Jim Crow. Our parents went through the ‘young, gifted and Black,’ era. That has transcended into present times and still having to deal with a society where you’re facing assimilation (versus) embracing things such as your natural hair, or natural Black beauty.”

On the surface, “A Raisin in the Sun” might feel dated to Gen Z audiences, but Rusk thinks it's an evergreen play that everyone should see, touching on contested modern-day topics, including housing discrimination, gender and racial inequity and abortion.

“If we don’t know our history, we’re doomed to repeat it,” Rusk said. “Everyone can speak to having a dream and having that dream deferred. You could look at this play and think it’s an African American play, but this is an American play. This is a human play. This is a play for everyone.”

“A Raisin in the Sun” runs Jan. 7-16 at Community Players Theatre, 201 Robinhoold Lane, Bloomington, with a preview on Thursday, Jan. 6. For tickets and more information, visit communityplayers.org.

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