A Classic Returns
Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun originally opened on Broadway in 1959 -- before the civil-rights movement found its full momentum and at a time when, as Hansberry said, "The intimacy of knowledge which the Negro may culturally have of white Americans does not exist in the reverse." The play electrified audiences, enlightening whites, creating what James Baldwin described as a current between the actors and African-Americans in the audience: "flesh and blood corroborating flesh and blood -- as we say, testifying." In the intervening years, civil-rights legislation has removed some of the most egregious obstacles to black advancement, but the essential story of the Younger family's struggle against poverty and despair is not at all dated -- although a few of the play's devices are. Terry Dodd's thoughtful and sensitive production at the Arvada Center does full justice both to the script's subtleties and to its underlying tenderness and idealism.
The Younger family consists of Lena, a stubborn and steely-minded matriarch; her son, Walter Lee; and her daughter, Beneatha. Walter Lee is married to the long-suffering Ruth and the father of ten-year-old Travis. He works as a chauffeur and is full of dreams about great wealth and easy money. Beneatha is in some ways the soul of the play, an inquisitive young girl with a sharp mind, a love of poetry and a longing for social justice. She plans to become a doctor in order to heal the hurts of the world.
Lena's husband has recently died; she is about to receive a $10,000 insurance check, and the family is conflicted over how to spend or divide it. The needs are pressing, from Beneatha's medical-school training to a house that would free them from the roach-infested apartment on Chicago's South Side where they currently live. And then there's Walter Lee's idea of investing in a liquor store and making fast money.
But it's not so much the plot that gives the play its power as the web of meaning underlying it. We come to understand that Walter's self-centered blindness, his struggles to come of age and "become a man" are exacerbated by the loving dominance of his mother, Lena. Ruth, with her forbearance, her ability to keep reaching for happiness even when she's in the depths of despair, resembles the sun-starved plant that Lena lovingly tends on the sooty windowsill.
Beneatha has two suitors who exemplify the tangled skein of her thinking. One of them, George, is a representative of the successful black haute bourgeoisie. The other is Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian student who's determined to use his education in America for the betterment of his people. Unlike black Americans, Joseph knows not only his original nationality, but his tribe. Hansberry presents him as wise and centered. But though Beneatha claims to hate "assimilated blacks," she's far too assimilated herself to accept Joseph's offer of a home in Africa.
Laura K. Love's detailed, evocative set, with its brick walls and blank windows framing the cluttered apartment, adds texture to the production. For the most part, however, the actors lack the necessary authority for their roles. Gabrielle Goyette has emotional traction as Lena, but everything from her walk to her line readings feels externally added rather than the result of an inner impulse. Cajardo Rameer Lindsey brings humor and some intelligent underplaying to the role of Walter Lee, but you don't really feel much for the character until the play's climax. Kamaria King's Beneatha is vivid and sprightly, if narrowly drawn. Chaz Grundy makes Joseph Asagai so slow-moving and oddly accented that the character is almost cartoonish. Adrienne Martin-Fullwood is a warm, empathetic Ruth. Nervous, equivocating, fiddling with his shiny pen, Michael McNeill creates a strong impression as the white racist who -- under the guise of friendly advice -- warns the Youngers not to move into his neighborhood.
Lorraine Hansberry died in 1965, at the age of 34. Her observations still seem acute, and her supple, insightful language is a pleasure. It's impossible not to think about the gallery of characters and the multi-layered on-stage universe she might have given us had she lived longer.
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