Volume III, Issue II Summer 2004

'A Raisin in the Sun' a vivid saga of black life in the 1950s

Broadway revival evokes a Chicago family's dreams

By Lucy Komisar


A Raisin in the Sun
Written by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Kenny Leon

Royale Theatre
242 West 45th Street

Watching Lorraine Hansberry's absorbing, naturalistic play is like being in a time warp. It's 45 years ago, and racial discrimination is a lot less subtle. The civil rights laws of 1963 and '64 haven't been passed yet to ban bias in voting, jobs, housing or public accommodations. But the Supreme Court has two years earlier ruled school segregation unconstitutional, and there's a bubbling up of demand by blacks (then called Negroes) and a backlash by fearful whites.

The title of Hansberry's play comes from Langston Hughes' "Harlem: A Dream Deferred":

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

A Raisin in the Sun
Sean Combs and Alexander Mitchell as Walter Lee and Travis Younger
Photo by Joan Marcus
There are a lot of dreams working at the Youngers' dingy Chicago apartment, which Walter Lee (Sean Combs) shares with his wife Ruth (Audra McDonald), son Travis (Alexander Mitchell), sister Beneatha (Sanaa Lathan) and mother Lena (Phylicia Rashad).

Walter Lee is a chauffeur, and his humiliation at being at the beck and call of his white boss are exacerbated by having to share a bathroom in the hall with this brood and neighbors and by having his young son sleep on the living room sofa, by having his mother and sister share a room. There's a sense of clutter in the old cupboard of the kitchen that's part of that "everything" room. One gets the sense of the place wearing them down.

Walter Lee is trying to punch his way out of the racist bag, but he's already dried up at 34, a victim of fantasies that take him to the pinnacle of what he thinks he could be in the ghetto: partner in a liquor store. He may have dreams, but he has no training or abilities or judgment.

His mother and wife just cope, both representing the strong black women who had to deal with and forgive the failures of their weak, soul-damaged men.

A Raisin in the Sun
Phylicia Rashad as Lena
Photo by Joan Marcus
The past is also represented by Karl Lindner (David Aaron Baker) from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, who visits after Lena puts a down payment on a house in his neighborhood. In a smarmy voice, he urges them to realize that "Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities."

The future that Hansberry sees is represented by Beneatha, who is in college, on the way to becoming a doctor. She is not worried about who she will marry. She is militant, screechy and fresh, and Lena slaps her in a fury when she says there's no God. Walter Lee, whose vision of success has no room for women, thinks Beneatha should be a nurse, like other women.

The play moves like a Greek tragedy inexorably to misfortune. Lena is about to receive $10,000 in insurance money from the policy of her late husband. She wants to use it to buy a house where they can have private bedrooms and a backyard. Walter wants to buy into a liquor store. Is that the way out? Or is this family doomed to the ghetto? You root for them and the people they represent.

Hansberry mixes the family drama with an uncanny and prescient look into the future. Beneatha is a feminist and incipient political activist. She drops her rich boyfriend, George Murchison (Frank Harts), who informs her he doesn't go out with her to hear her thoughts. She takes up with a Nigerian (Teagle F. Bougere), who, with bursting pride, announces that he is going back to his village to deal with its problems of disease and illiteracy. Lathan gives life to Beneatha as a charmer who is full of nervous energy, intelligence, ambition and the political passion of youth. She is Hansberry.

A Raisin in the Sun
Audra McDonald and Sean Combs as Ruth and Walter Lee Younger
Photo by Joan Marcus
But the author was not merely a playwright of family drama. She presciently inserts the recognition that after the independence years of the 1960s, the "crooks and thieves and plain idiots" would steal Africa blind.

Director Kenny Leon has succeeded in keeping these prototypes sharp and not allowing them to descend into soap opera. Lathan shows the young Beneatha growing from self-involvement to a commitment to change. McDonald evokes Ruth's complexity, moving between affectionate or disappointed wife to distraught head of household (because she indeed keeps it together). Phylicia Rashad's Lena sneaks up on you, until you realize that she's been the rock of the family since her children's childhood. Only Sean Combs as Walter Lee disappoints, because in his final transformation, when he makes a decision that takes moral guts, you can't see how this foolish fellow got there.

The play appeared on Broadway when Hansberry was only 29; she tragically died of cancer five years later. The work has been translated into more than 30 languages, with the Younger family living on to mirror and inspire the struggles of people like them worldwide.

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