A Raisin in the Sun at the Guthrie Theater As Relevant Today as it Was 60 Years Ago, Sadly

Tonia Jackson (Lena Younger), James T. Alfred (Walter Lee Younger). Photo credit: Tom Wallace

A Raisin in the Sun Opened this week at the Guthrie Theater along the Mississippi River in Downtown Minneapolis. This is a classic of the American stage, a landmark show when it premiered on Broadway in 1959, being the first play produced on Broadway written by a Black woman Lorraine Hansberry and the first with a Black director, Lloyd Richards. The play earned four tony Award nominations and in 1961 was adapted for film utilizing the original Broadway cast, which included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Claudia McNeil. This is an important dramatic work that reflected the issues that Black American families faced in the 1950’s and 60’s. We produce great works like A Raisin in the Sun or Shakespeare again for many reasons. One reason is because the people mounting a new production feel that it has something to say to us now. Another reason is to give current performers a chance to interpret the roles and share these stories with new audiences. These are the two reasons to see the Guthrie’s new production. A Raisin in the Sun absolutely has something to say to us in the 21st century. It was and is a powerfully written play and it will remind you of where we were at that time in this country and make you reflect on where we are now. But powerful words have little effect unless they are channelled through performers capable of making those word resonate with an audience. This cast Takes Hansberry’s words and boosts the signal creating a piece of theatre that speaks not just to the past but to the present and future as well.

It is the story on the Younger family who live together in a two room apartment in chicago’s South side. Led by matriarch Lena who is expecting a check for $10,000, the life insurance money on her husband who passed away. She plans to use part of the money towards medical school for her daughter Beneatha and the rest on a downpayment on a house for the family to move into. Her son Walter Lee, who works as a chauffeur to a white man, wants to convince his mother to give him the money to invest in a liquor store with his friends. Walter Lee’s wife Ruth discovers she is pregnant with their second child. Their son Travis, as we discover in the opening of the play, sleeps on the couch in the living room. Their day begins with everyone being pleaded out of bed by Ruth so they will be able to get through the shared hallway bathroom and off to school and work before the neighbors get in. There are several themes being played out throughout the play. One is about assimilation and is explored through the character of Beneatha and her two “boyfriends.” One is the son of a wealthy black family, the other is a student from Nigeria. These characters will represent the struggle Beneatha feels between assimilating into white culture or embracing her African roots. Another theme is about pride and it’s importance to our self esteem and our relationships. Walter Lee is a man who is a husband and father but has no authority, all of that resides with his mother. He feels trapped by his work in service, he dreams of being his own boss and becoming wealthy but he has no agency with which to enact this change. He feels that no one understands him and his need to strike out on his own. This has created a distance between him and his wife. When she learns she is pregnant she meets with a local woman and puts down a deposit on an abortion. An echo from the past that reverberates especially with recent news. Lena realizes that by controlling the family she has relegated Walter Lee from a role of leadership within the family that has fed his craving for wealth which he sees as freedom. When the money arrives she goes and uses $3,500 to put a downpayment on a house in a white neighborhood. It was the best house she could get for the least amount of money. She then gives Walter Lee the remaining money telling him to go to the bank and put $3,000 of it into a savings account for Beneatha’s schooling and open a checking account with the remaining $3,500 which he will control. Before long a representative from the White neighborhood, Karl Lindner comes to visit the Youngers with an offer from their community association to buy them out so they will not move into their all white neighborhood. Complications ensue.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

From the Poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes 1951

The extract above from Langston Hughes’ poem is one of the central questions of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, making it the perfect title. Like Hughes, Hansberry was a social activist and her play A Raisin in the Sun addresses the realities facing Black communities at the time. Sadly, while the details have changed, it is far too easy to see how the overall issues are still with us as a society. The disparity in wealth and opportunity still exist. On the surface it would appear that things are much better now, 60 years on, and maybe it’s unfair to say they haven’t changed. But in 60 years they should have improved far more than they have. It feels that what has improved at a far greater rate was our ability to hide the disparity. There is a scene in the play when Karl Lindner comes to try and talk the Youngers out of moving into his neighborhood. He tries to put a pleasant face on what he is doing, if you took his words at face value, you might almost think of him as well meaning. But he is doing what we still do in this country, we cover up what we are really doing with excuses that almost sound valid until you do a little critical thinking. In the play it’s fairly easy for the Youngers to see what Lindner is really saying, and in this way we as a society have really progressed in the intervening 60 years. We’ve gotten so it’s a lot harder to see the racism. This is why this is still a relevant play, this is the enduring power of Lorraine Hansberry’s work.

Austene Van, who recently impressed me with her direction of Passing Strange at Yellow Tree Theatre, once again displays her significant talents with her skillful direction. Scenic designer Regina Garcia has created an impressive set. The focus is on the Youngers apartment which is presented in detail, the rest of the apartment building is suggested with isolated details. A set of stairs, a room from another apartment including a portion of the exterior wall, windows hanging in space. We are given a sense of the larger space as an idea so we can understand that this is one apartment among many, this is one specific story in this larger world. This is a remarkable cast led by James T. Alfred as Walter Lee and Tonia Jackson as Lena. Both give powerful performances. Alfred has to play multiple sides of Walter Lee, not all of them endearing, but his performance helps us to understand all of them. Jackson as well needs to deliver a multilayered performance, the wise matriarch, the angry mother, The sassy neighbor, the concerned mother-in-law. Both Alfred and Jackson have to give several speeches which could easily feel too on the nose or preachy in lesser hands, but they both handle them masterfully, finding the truth rather than just relaying the message. Nubia Monks as Beneatha is wonderfully versatile, her part and her strengths are in the way she interacts with the other characters. She isn’t given the longer dramatic speeches but she is given various characters to play off of and like a real life person she behaves differently depending on who she is interacting with. Some of her best moments are her reactions and interactions with the two love interests. The most promising relationship in the entire show is between her and Ernest Bentley as Joseph Asagai the Nigerian student. In two scenes Bentley creates an indelible character that is an audience favorite. In a scene which has be reinstated into the play having been removed in its initial Broadway run Jamecia Bennett provides some comedic relief as the upstairs neighbor Mrs. johnson. Including the scene was a wise choice by director Van, it gives us a much needed moment of comic relief not just in her scene, but by the fact the scene was included that meant there was an actor hired for that role that could then be used as a silent presence in the battle of the shared bathroom. Her racing up and down the staircase helped add clarity to those moments that might have felt a little ambiguous otherwise.

A Raisin in the Sun runs through June 5th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/raisin

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