September 16, 2004

Flickering Hope: A Raisin in the Sun

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Walter Lee Younger may be one of the most confusing and tragic figures of all time. Perhaps that’s because his tragic dimension is so ambiguous; he is not born of the classical mold. There is no Achillean rage, no inaction suspended in metaphysical musing like Hamlet, no vaulted ambition, and no blinding hubris. What seems to mark Walter Lee more than anything is his exhaustion.

Exhaustion, that is, with the perpetual elusiveness of the American Dream. It is exhaustion that deflates hope, that grinds patience, and leaves him with the twitchy neurosis of a caged animal. Like his closest dramatic relative, Willy Loman, Walter is heavy and dazed with fatigue, staggering against a fusillade of blows like a wounded fighter too deep in to leave. But unlike Death of a Salesman, to which it has faced many comparisons, A Raisin in the Sun is not a requiem. Underneath Lorraine Hansberry’s deliberate and painful narrative and tucked into the three-room apartments of her monolithic Chicago tenements there survives the fabric of love, family, and perseverance.

First opening on Broadway on March 10, 1959, A Raisin in the Sun irrevocably changed American theatre, simultaneously laying waste to racial hierarchies and introducing a new vocabulary to the art of playwriting. It was the first play to accurately depict black family life, the first Broadway production penned by an African-American, and the first to be directed by an African-American, Lloyd Richards.

It would seem apparent then that it’s production by the Schwartz Center is a special event. But adding to the significance of this production is the presence of two individuals: guest director Regge Life and guest artist Yolanda King, the eldest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“It was a brilliant move to cast Yokie [Yolanda King] because of who she is,” commented Life. “I frequently will choose a play for a whole variety of reasons. In this case, the first is that it’s brilliant, and secondly that we had wanted to do it for several years,” said David Feldshuh, director of Cornell’s Theater Arts department. “Most importantly, though, we had undergraduates who could be cast. That was very important.”

The plot of the work is simple enough. The Younger matriarch and backbone, Mama (Yolanda King), is set to receive a $10,000 inheritance check. The prospect of this opportunity polarizes the Youngers, with daughter Beneatha (Colista Turner) condemning Walter’s (Godfrey Simmons, Jr.) compulsion to use the money to open a liquor store and provide a better life for his wife Ruth (Nefertiti Bridges) and son. Taking it’s name from Langston Hughes’s poem “A Dream Deferred,” Hansberry’s work asks a simple question: Where does the lost energy of unfulfilled dreams go?

“You look at each of these plays [Death of a Salesman, Eugene O’Neil’s works, A Raisin in the Sun], and they are always about particular ethnic groups striving for their place in the sun,” said Life. “And that struggle manifests itself in different ways.”

“She’s [Hansberry] great at using a particular to get at a universal,” said Simmons.

This mark’s Life’s second production of Hansberry’s work, formerly putting it on at the Capitol Repertory Theatre in Albany. Formerly a producer and director for The Cosby Show, Sesame Street, Trading Places, and Ragtime, Life brings professional experience and wisdom to the production. Life’s rendering of the work for the Schwartz remains true to the work. With a piece based on Ibsen, Shaw, and O’Neill’s conceptions of realism, Life and his crew have put painstaking detail in establishing an effective fourth wall, transporting the audience back to the urban crawl of 1950s southside Chicago.

Simple in its construct, the production operates around one room — the Younger’s living room/ kitchen. It is here that all of the dramaturgy is contained. There is no action the story cannot fit comfortably between the thin walls of the room. The world outside still exists, and its influence on the Younger family is palpable, but it is this room that comes to represent the disparate ends of the earth for the Youngers.

In recreating the staging originally laid out by Hansberry, a room that suffers “indestructible contradictions to it’s state of being” and is defined by it’s “wariness,” set designer Kent Goetz went to great lengths.

“Once upon a time it was a larger household, but its wooden French doors were locked and it was broken up into small apartments,” said Goetz. “It’s a place that you wouldn’t spend your life, but you could if you had too.”

Goetz and Life establish this paradigm nicely. The claustrophobic space of the room — the Youngers must compete with neighbors for the one bathroom on the floor — is both a cage and a womb simultaneously. Its cockroaches, torn furniture, and old wood stand for the dashed dreams of the Youngers, but its warmth and familiarity are a safe haven from the urban jungle outside. Not at all an exercise in minimalism, the set is intricately detailed, an inflection, according to Goetz, of his grandmother’s house, his student studio, and pictures of friends’ Chicago apartments. Above the bright walls of the Younger’s apartment rise silhouetted high rises, their black facades dashed in Pollock-esque squalls of paint, reflecting a city brimming with energy and chaos.

But at the heart of the play and this production is the acting itself. Not a work of high-blown rhetoric, the success of the play hinges upon the actors’ evocation of lower-class frustration. Watching the interaction between Simmons and King is electric. Both actors call upon all their faculties to inject volumes of life into their characters. Simmons moves effortlessly through the tremendous swells of Walter’s character, channeling rage, sincerity, and emotional impotence in one furious pace.

“The energy of Walter Lee is volcanic — you need an actor that can run that race, so to say,” said Feldshuh. “Godfrey is such a physical actor, he was ideal for the role.”

Simmons explains that, “I’ve always thought that the brilliance of the play is that any Negro could play Walter. Walter is present in every black male, and to a certain extent, I am Walter Lee walking in.”

“In 2004, we need to question where we are in terms of race relations, class relations,” said Life. “We need an understanding of what it is to be an American. You know, in this great salad bowl of humans that is America, everyone is entitled to a piece of this dream.” Ms. King remains a pillar of strength throughout the play, evoking Mama as an anchor of balance and wisdom against the wild fluctuations of her family.

“She doesn’t just act,” explained Nefertiti Bridges, “she uses it in different ways. She speaks.” Equally notable is Bridges as Ruth, Walter’s much belittled but resilient wife. Though often overlooked in importance, Ruth is a critical figure, serving, in Life’s words, as “the witness. She is witness to everything and everyone.”

“Beneatha is ambitious. It’s not that Ruth isn’t ambitious. She just hasn’t been given the chance,” said Bridges. “Her objective is just to get out and make a better life for her family.” “I’ve never had such a hard role,” Bridges explained. “[Ruth] is a mother, wife, and she’s pregnant. I had to look deep into myself; I had to come out of myself to become her.”

Also adding to the uniqueness of the production is the presence of Phillip Rose, an intimate friend of Hansberry’s, and the man who first produced A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway. Speaking on Tuesday evening about the play’s history, Rose shed light on the immense struggles and prejudices he and Hansberry had to overcome, such as funding an essentially unfundable production. “I never had the time or the money to stop and think whether this would be the great work it has become,” said Rose.

More than anything, Rose credits the strength and brilliance of Hansberry for the play’s success, a woman who would have been content to walk away from both Broadway funding and a movie deal in order to protect the integrity and message of her work.

After bringing down the house on
opening night, Rose told of how he dragged a shy and reluctant Hansberry to Sardie’s restaurant for a post-production celebration. Upon entering the predominantly white establishment, Hansberry received a standing ovation that could scarcely be stopped.

“For the first time,” reflected Rose, “It occurred to me there might be more than just a play here.”

Sometimes the applause is justification enough.

Archived article by Zach Jones
Red Letter Daze Associate Editor