Information, reviews, and miscellaneous shorts focusing on professional, nonprofit theater—from a Southeast Minnesota perspective.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Raisin in the Sun

by Lorraine Hansberry, directed by Lou Bellamy
Penumbra Theatre Production at the Guthrie Theatre
April 1, 2009

A year ago when I read that Penumbra and the Guthrie would be presenting Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, 50 years after its debut on Broadway, I mentally placed it on my “must see” list. I saw it as an opportunity to see a play that was a breakthrough for Hansberry and for African American writers, directors, and actors, a play that is often mentioned alongside other mid-century giants such as Death of a Salesman and The Glass Menagerie. In short, I was viewing the play as an important piece of American literary history, so I was caught off guard by the power of Penumbra’s staging.

Erika LaVonn (Ruth) and David Alan Anderson (Walter Lee) Photo by Peter Jennings (Penumbra)

I shouldn’t have been surprised. The work carries an electricity even in the reading, and I know from experience with Penumbra’s productions that what is electric on the page becomes almost unbearably real on stage. Even in the waking moments of the play, where members of the Younger family arrise in turn to take their turns in the shared bathroom (shared with other families, not just with other siblings), long held dreams were fading. The impatience evident in the terse derailed conversation between Ruth and Walter Lee let the audience know that this family is on the edge, and that this marriage and family could explode or, sadder yet, simply turn cold and bitter.

Set in post WWII Chicago, a three-generation family lives in a small two bedroom apartment. Lena Younger and her husband Walter moved to this apartment shortly after marrying and vowed that they would move to a real house in the coming years. More than thirty years later, with Big Walter dead, the Younger family still lives in the same apartment: Lena, her son Walter Lee and his wife Ruth and their 10-year-old son Travis, and Lena’s college-aged daughter Beneatha. Theirs is a story of a dream denied: Big Walter and Lena were never able to buy that house, and it still takes three adults working full-time menial jobs to cover the expenses of living in the run-down Southside apartment. Lena and Ruth hold on to the slim dream of moving to a house, a structure that could relieve the claustrophobic stress while holding their family together. Beneatha, whose exposure to ideas at college has kindled her dreams, sees new possibilities: self expression, identity, Africa, medical school. But Walter, 10 years her senior has seen his dreams fade, and on the morning the play opens, he is franticly trying not to miss a last opportunity for creating a better life.

A Raisin in the Sun’s 50 years of success with theater audiences, black and white, may stem from Hansberry’s ability to articulate a sense of accumulated loss and disappointment over missed dreams in a way that many people can identify with on some level. For example, Walter Lee’s impatient and single-minded obsession with his clearly doomed liquor store scheme is irrationally childish and dangerous to the family’s equilibrium. Yet when the deal goes awry and the family’s money is stolen, the audience’s anger at Walter is tempered by empathy because most people have either been that reckless obsessed child or loved a person with that recklessness. As a mark of a good play, it’s easy for the audience to see a part of itself on stage.

Adeoye (Joseph Asagai) and Bakesta King (Beneatha) Photo by Tim Fuller (Penumbra)

Yet, according to actor and playwright Ossie Davis, who replaced Sidney Poitier in the original Broadway production, this identification caused a problem for a play that set out to draw attention to the plight of black Americans at a specific time and place. Davis says, “One of the biggest selling points about Raisin. . .was how much the Younger family was just like any other American family. Some people were ecstatic to find that ‘it didn’t really have to be about Negroes at all!’ It was, rather, a walking, talking, living demonstration of our mythic conviction that, underneath all of us, Americans. . .are pretty much alike” (qtd. in Robert Nemiroff’s 1987 introduction to the play). So while Raisin in the Sun gave many Americans their first glimpse inside a private home of an African-American family, it also seemed to allow middle class white America to gloss over the systemic poverty and powerlessness that Hansberry hopes to expose. Nemiroff continues Davis’ observation: “In many reviews (and later academic studies), the Younger family. . .was transformed into an acceptably ‘middle class’ family. The decision to move became a desire to ‘integrate’ (rather than, as Mamma says simply, ‘to find the nicest house for the least amount of money for my family. . .Them houses they put up for colored in them areas way out always seem to cost twice as much.’)”

This phenomena might also help explain why Penumbra’s production took me by surprise. Perhaps I had not only relegated the play to an important historical artifact, I may have trivialized the characters by limiting their hardships and despair—as well as their wit and playfulness—to my own limited experiences. The reality of their portrayal on the stage was much more vivid and real than I could have imagined. And while I could identify with aspects of the characters, it is clear that the experiences that have brought these characters to this place on stage include subtle and not-so subtle racism and injustice, neither of which are a part of my personal experience.

A Raisin in the Sun does have some trouble spots. A couple of them may have to do with the passage of 50 years. On more than one occasion the audience hooted at a (hopefully dated) sexist comment by Walter or one of Beneatha’s suitors. But near the conclusion of the play, some members of the audience reacted with near rebellion to what surely was meant to be a moving exchange between Walter’s mother and Walter’s wife. Momma Lena expresses her pride over her son’s having stood up to the white neighborhood association representative. She tells Ruth (“Quietly, woman to woman,” according to the stage directions) “He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he?”

While all of the characters have decisions and personal stands to make, Hansberry does develop a theme of Walter Lee needing to establish his “manhood,” so this last statement doesn’t come entirely out of the blue. Further, this concept of a strong women preventing a man’s growth was likely a prevalent view in mid century; it also likely has adherents today, despite the heckles from the audience. Earlier in the play, Momma Lena offers an assessment of her own role in thwarting Walter Lee’s development by acting as the matriarch, the head of the family. Lenna tells Walter, “Listen to me, now. I say I been wrong, son. That I been doing to you what the rest of the world been doing to you. . . .There ain’t nothing worth holding on to, money, dreams, nothing else—if it means—if it means it’s going to destroy my boy. (She takes an envelope out of her handbag and puts it in front of him, and he watches her without speaking or moving). . .It ain’t much, but it’s all I got in the world and I’m putting it in your hands. I’m telling you to be the head of this family from now on like you supposed to be.”

David Alan Anderson (Walter Lee) and Franchelle Stewart Dorn (Lena) Photo by Peter Jennings (Penumbra)

Little in the play suggests that Walter Lee has earned this new trust, and every seat in the house knows that Walter will loose every dime of that money. While the play does pivot largely on Walter Lee’s transformation, it is the growth and maturation of this family as a whole that provides the more compelling story. It also strikes me that Hansberry may have been more interested in developing this later theme than the manhood one, which may have been an after thought. I think it’s possible that Hansberry includes the manhood theme, not because she particularly found it important, but because it was simply in the air that she breathed and the water that she drank as a black writer. The motif of a black man gaining manhood status by standing up to the white man permeates much of black writing dating back to slave narratives, including Frederick Douglass’s account of his transformation from slave to man. And with this transforming stand, a man reclaims his rightful place as head of himself and his family, a position previously appropriated by wives and mothers. With 50 years of hindsight, it is easy to wonder why the 29-year-old Hansberry couldn’t recognize and challenge this myth. Perhaps she could have had she lived another 50 years. Unfortunately for us, she only had another 6 years.

I’ve made the Penumbra’s A Raisin in the Sun sound like an incredibly serious and heavy play, which, of course, it is. But it is also funny and playful play as the family members chide, and tease, and antagonize each other in a way that only family members can. The cast is simply remarkable in this production. And while the ending is not a happy-ever-after ending, it is an ending of perseverance and pride worthy of the spirits of the 5 generations of Youngers who had dreamed and toiled, laughed, and loved on this continent, preparing the way for the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights Movement to come.

A Raisin in the Sun runs through April 11 at the Guthrie in St. Paul. Visit for tickets and schedules.

Quotes taken from Lorraine Hansberry. A Raisin in the Sun with an introduction by Robert Nemiroff. Vintage Books: 1994.

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