Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Shining new light on A Raisin in the Sun (Part I of a series)

LeRoy McClain and Ashley Everage in A Raisin in the Sun.  Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

I'm not sure whether the theatre is more obsessed with race these days, or real estate.  But the two topics have certainly been entwined on our stages, in production after production pondering the question of black families moving into white neighborhoods.  Last year saw The Luck of the Irish premiere at the Huntington, after Clybourne Park took its regional bow at Trinity; and right now Clybourne is enjoying a return engagement at SpeakEasy, while the grandmother of the whole genre (and yes, by now it's a genre), Lorraine Hansberry's classic A Raisin in the Sun, has just been revived at the Huntington (through April 7) under the direction of Liesl Tommy.

I'm not really complaining about the sudden intensity of this focus (in fact I think I'm the only local critic to ever call for somebody, anybody, to treat Boston's de facto policy of racial apartheid).  But I'll admit that by now I've become a little concerned about the limits of these texts - I'd like to see more plays like Invisible Man, that treat race without recourse to a realtor.  Still, I'm aware that the theatre is responding in its usual half-baked way to the deep realization that rocked Fox News on election day, i.e. white people don't own the country anymore (they just own Wall Street!).

Of course of these works, Raisin is by far the greatest - and now I'd argue it's the most poignant, too. For seeing it again - particularly after taking in Clybourne Park for the second time - means facing the touching quaintness of its essential optimism.  It's not that the hopes of Hansberry's family (tellingly named the Youngers) are doomed - not exactly.  It's more that they don't quite guess what's ahead, much less how their dreams will be co-opted.

The critical response to the current juxtaposition of Raisin and its derivative satellite, Clybourne, has been enthusiastic but, alas, rather vapid.  Everyone agrees, for instance, that the two works 'have a lot to say to each other,' but precisely what that might be remains unspoken; meanwhile Raisin is lauded (as always) for being "searingly human," "achingly true," etc., etc.

Which it is - but the Huntington revival also reminded me of the play's many flaws.  A Raisin in the Sun was completed by Hansberry at the ripe old age of 28, and it's a young person's play - overlong and overstuffed with thematic tangents.  It's also unevenly structured, as the author juggles a mosaic of rambling scenes that cluster around its central trio (or is it a quartet?) of protagonists.  Indeed, what many recall as the spine of the play - Mrs. Younger's purchase of a home in the all-white neighborhood of (yes) Clybourne Park - is only one of several thematic threads (the debate between assimilation vs. isolation, the tension between the sexes in African-American culture) that bind the play together.

Keona Welch and Kimberly Scott; photo: T Charles Erickson
What also binds the play together, of course, is Hansberry's sheer passion, and her desire to pack into her script everything she knows about being "young, gifted and black" - even if the history of the Younger clan doesn't quite match her own (her family was the first to fight - and win - a battle against race-restrictive covenants, but the Hansberries were far more moneyed and middle-class than their fictional counterparts).

And luckily for us, the author's passion is matched by that of the cast at the Huntington, whose production is sustained by remarkable performances, despite a few odd flourishes from its director.  Tommy has chosen to incorporate the ghost of the family's dead patriarch - whose insurance money is funding their new dreams - directly into the action of the play (Corey Allen stalks the set in age make-up), which alas, feels a bit cinematic and Disney-fied. The set, by Clint Ramos, is likewise slightly problematic; it's a turntable that we can feel is meant to spin with the family as it whirls in indecision; but like the appearances of Ghost-Dad, this sometimes feels forced, and various lighting effects and Tommy's trademarked bursts of extraneous rap are similarly distracting.

But if the director hasn't solved the structural issues in Hansberry's text, and has perhaps even exacerbated some of them here and there, I have to admit that she has also drawn memorable performances from her cast pretty much across the board; so the uplifting, traditional core of Raisin survives the odd accoutrements of this revival.  Perhaps first among equals is LeRoy McClain, whose performance as Walter Lee Younger (the son who squanders much of the family inheritance on a liquor store scheme) is a fluid, fevered marvel of anger, ambition, immaturity, and wounded sensitivity.  He's pretty much matched, however, by the luminous Keona Welch as his very Lorraine-Hansberry-like sister, whose brilliant idealism is tempered by a winningly bemused self-awareness. Meanwhile the formidable Kimberly Scott, as matriarch Lena Younger, was beset by a few memory lapses on opening night, but as these settle down the understated strength of her heart-breaking performance will only become more apparent.  Even subtler than Scott was Ashley Everage, who brought a disappointed (but unbroken) strength to the role of Walter Lee's wife Ruth.  The supporting cast - Jason Bowen, Corey Allen, Maurice E. Parent, and Will McGarrahan - was likewise strong (while the youngest role, of Walter Lee's son Travis, is charmingly handled by either Cory Janvier or Zaire White).  Indeed, the acting alone at the Huntington was enough to give you hope for the future - or at least until you see Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park.  But more about that in the second part of this series.


  1. Can't you tell? It's encrypted in this review using the code of the Illuminati! Don't worry, I'll wrap it up soon - jeez, you Kubrick nuts!! ;-)

  2. Hi Tom

    Kimberly Scott plays Lena Younger, the matriarch. Ashley Everage plays Ruth Younger, Walter Lee's wife.



  3. Sigh, I'm suffering from my own memory lapses. I'll adjust, thanks!