Despite director Robert O’Hara’s attempt to do something different with Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun" and despite Williamstown Theatre Festival’s promotional declaration that its production is a “reexamination” of the groundbreaking 1959 drama about a Black family in Chicago, it is Hansberry’s original, powerful text that still prevails.
O’Hara, one of the hottest young directors today, wowed New York audiences this season with two of the boldest plays (and two of my favorites) by young African American authors that address legacy of race in America, “Slave Play” (about Southern plantation sex therapy) and “BLKS” (millennial lesbians in Brooklyn). With “Raisin”, O’Hara is almost three generations removed from Hansberry; the different sensibilities of author then and director now are apparent. But, then, so are the times. Or, fundamentally, are they? O'Hara confronts his audience with that question. Sometimes his directorial choices enhance Hansberry's text, sometimes not so much.
In the quiet dawn in the run-down, impoverished, cluttered South Side apartment (Clint Ramos’scenery is spot-on), a powder keg of family tension is already palpable. Walter Younger (played by Francois Battiste) is trapped - 30ish, scraping by on chauffeur’s wages, out drinking too much, dreams dashed, sharing the cramped quarters with his pregnant wife Ruth (Mandi Masden), their 10 year old son, his sister Beneatha (Nikiya Mathis), who’s going to college and wants to be a doctor, and his widowed mother Lena, Mama (S. Epatha Merkerson). Change is on the horizon; an insurance policy on Lena’s husband’s death is due. With the $10,000 payout, Lena puts a down payment on a house in all white neighborhood. She entrusts Walter to secure the rest for the family future and his sister’s education. Instead he loses it in a scheme to invest in a liquor store. When a representative of the neighborhood association tries to buy Lena out of her purchase contract on the house on profitable terms, Walter sees some relief to the financial loss he caused. .
“Raisin”’s core conflict is between mother and son, filtered by Lena’s memory of deceased older Walter, a laborer, who “worked himself to death” in his early 40s. Lena’s language to describe her husband is vivid - beautifully knowing and loving at the same time. Yet O’Hara introduces the father as a ghost that silently wanders into Lena's key scenes. It’s not totally intrusive, but what’s the value added? Hansberry’s dialogue is crystal clear emotionally, and, God knows, the ever-reliable Merkerson is capable of delivering all that emotion without the prop of a dead husband.
The prescience of Hansberry’s story speaks for itself. Daughter Beneatha is being courted by a successful entrepreneur, who aspires to assimilation in the White culture, and by a Nigerian, who advocates going back to African roots. (He calls Beneatha straightening her hair “mutilation.”) Hansberry wrote 10 years before late 1960s Black Power; 60 years later, Black Lives Matter. How much has really changed? O’Hara answers that question later.
Indeed, politics is the inevitable subtext to any new production of “Raisin”, but the Youngers never talk about civil rights. They're concerned about getting on and getting out and up. What is most brilliant about Hansberry’s story is how Lena is center not only emotionally to the Younger family but also to generationally to Black history. Lean admonishes her son Walter’s preoccupation with money; her generation was concerned about “getting to the North” and getting “a piece of dignity.” Lena and her parents were part of the migration of southern Blacks to Chicago following Reconstruction; her grandparents slaves. Lena’s grandson, 10 at the time of the play, would today be just 10 years older than President Obama.
Human dignity is what is at the core of Hansberry’s work, and most vividly brought home by the moving, wrenching second act speech of Walter, which summons all the pain of generation after generation of injustice to the African American male. Typically delivered to Lena, O’Hara kicks down the fourth wall and brings Walter to the lip of the stage where Battiste projects Walter’s rage onto the audience, at one point hurling the actual WTF program for the show into the seats. O’Hara washes Walter junior in the same pure white light as the ghost of Walter senior -like father, like son. It’s powerful stuff - obvious direction - but powerful stuff. (Need I say again, the real power is in the text?)
The cast is generally excellent. Merkerson, besides Broadway better known for her role on “Law and Order”, renders a perfectly calibrated performance; her Mama embodies tough love before they called it that. Masden’s Ruth is pitch-perfect as young mother just barely holding it together. Mathis’s take on Beneatha isn’t subtle, but always engaging. Battiste’s Walter is about the most physical Walter yet, whether he’s swaggering territorially around the apartment or on his knees clinging to Lena’s apron as penitent child.
Hansberry’s script ends with the courageous decision by Walter to observe Mama’ s dream to move the family to the all white neighborhood no matter what, leaving their future uncertain. O’Hara invents a startling new (and expensive) coda (no spoiler here) that leaves no doubt what the Youngers faced when they got to their new home. Hansberry would not and could not have written it; it wasn’t in her temperament, and it would have been untenable to stage in her time. O’Hara’s coda is a kick-in-your-gut, in-your-face, "woke" up call that the search for dignity, which Hansberry so eloquently wrote about, was met - and continues to be met - by the cruelest indignities. Hansberry’s text endures, as does the struggle.
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