In the theater, groundbreaking efforts can be life-affirming and lasting. When the black playwright Lorraine Hansberry presented her first play “Raisin in the Sun” in 1959, she was the youngest American, and first African American (as well as only the fifth female) to win the Drama Critics’ Circle Award as author of the Best Play of the season. She entitled it after a Langston Hughes poem (“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”). Though it was the first play in Broadway history with a virtually all-black cast, it was hailed for its universality, as a play that happened to feature black characters but was applicable to all people. While this was in part true then, and remains so today, the true miracle of this work is its honest depiction of a particular class of people and how they faced crises that were peculiar to them. As Hansberry herself put it: “in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific”. While all of us may be able to identify with the its themes of retaining human values and integrity, obsession with material worth, maintaining self-respect, and difficult family relationships, there are some struggles, such as civil rights and racial awareness (and pride therein), that many of us initially encountered in our exposure to this play. Thanks to Huntington Theater Company, theatergoers could look forward to experiencing the power of Hansberry’s work once again.
But, sadly, not in this version. Theatergoers familiar with the central story from the filmed and televised versions, and perhaps even the 1974 Tony-winning Broadway musical, (all of which managed to produce profound effects on audiences of many hues), will have to look hard to find much of her insight here, primarily due to some problematic directorial choices by Leisl Tommy. Her bold decision to have the spectre of the late Walter Lee Sr. seated onstage as the play begins (thus this isn‘t a spoiler) and eventually to take on an active role, will strike audience members as either breaking brilliant new ground or a fundamentally wrong-headed and creepily distracting choice. While the memory of Walter Lee Sr. was always a profound presence, this is taking a metaphor way too literally. The main conflict was always that of the family’s move to a “white neighborhood”, Clybourne Park, and how this transforms Lena (Kimberly Scott), her son Walter Lee Jr. (LeRoy McClain), his wife Ruth (Ashley Everage), their son Travis (Cory Janvier) and Walter Lee’s sister Beneatha (Keona Welch). Things come to a head when they are visited by the (white) representative of the new neighborhood’s “Welcoming Committee”, Karl Lindner (the same character who appears in Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park”, being presented this month by SpeakEasy Stage Company, played here by Will McGarrahan). The saying that there is “no such thing as a ‘white folks’ neighborhood except to racists and those submitting to racism” was never truer. Making the crucial decision by Walter Lee Jr. (about Lindner’s visit) depend on the supernatural intervention by the ghost of his father destroys the inner growth that leads to the resolution of the main family crisis.
But “Raisin” is, or should be, about so much more than that. Consider Lena’s words about her son Walter Lee Jr. when he makes a critical mistake: “Have you cried for that boy today…what he’s been through and what it done to him…when do you think is the time to love somebody the most…it’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself…make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through”. Or pronouncements from condescending Beneatha (note the name), precursor to feminism, who, though not integral to the central plot, enables the author to comment on marriage, birth control, class barriers within the black community, the value of education and idealism vs. the upward mobility of one beau, George (Cory Allen), and the African roots and pride of her other beau, Asagai (Jason Bowen). Or the many instances where characters complain of being misunderstood, another recurring theme. Or the unforgettable iconic line from Lena: “Repeat after me, in my mother’s house there is still God.” This production also restores a poignant scene between Walter Lee Jr. and Travis that was cut from the original performances on Broadway. Unfortunately, though there are undeniably memorable moments of drama, there are several additional puzzling choices that distract from the playwright’s points. A revolving set sometimes requires that the actors awkwardly move from one room to another as they’re speaking; the lighting was occasionally harsh and strong (literally in one’s face); musical transitions were both gratingly dissonant and anachronistic; even some of the costuming (especially the loud argyles for George) was overly blatant. What this production sorely lacked was subtlety.
When first produced, this work by a young, gifted and black author both comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. Its impact should continue to resonate with contemporary audiences as much as it did when it first burst onto the stage. To interject such a real life play with a heavy dose of magical realism is a fundamental mistake. Hughes’ poem ends: “Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” While this production doesn’t sag like a heavy load from its ill-conceived direction, it doesn’t explode with theatrical force either.