Thursday, March 15, 2012

Douglas Messerli "Survivors" (on Lorraine Hansbery's A Raisin in the Sun)


Lorraine Hansbery A Raisin in the Sun / the performance I saw was February 18, 2012 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City, California
by Douglas Messerli

I had not previously seen a stage performance of the original Lorraine Hansbery play, A Raisin in the Sun, although I had long ago seen the film version with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, and I had read the play some time in college, as well as seeing the sentimentalized musical version in its premiere on May 30th, 1973, my 26th birthday at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Theater. So I thought it only fitting that I check out a new stage production at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, just a short drive from my Los Angeles home.

     Although the well-made play of political and social concerns is not generally my kind of theater, I thought it might be interesting to see how the play has stood, to use a tired cliché, "the test of time." And the fact that my previous physician, with the strangely appropriate name of Dr. Redcross, was married to a niece of Hansbery's, who was very involved in her aunt's estate and interested in theater, made the visit an even more appropriate event.

     When I mentioned my attendance of this play to an intelligent and highly esteemed friend, her response was: "I couldn't possibly ever see anything so sweet. If that makes an elitist, so be it."

     Although at times A Raisin in the Sun may be bittersweet, I would never characterize anything in this gritty story of the Younger family as "sweet." Even the mother, Lena (Kim Staunton), played to type as the sort of reaffirming, religious center of family life, is rarely joyful. And the rest of the family, Walter Lee (Kevin T. Carroll) and Beneatha (Kenya Alexander), particularly, battle it out in a Chicago ghetto world that has little room for anyone but survivors. The youngest of the Younger family, Travis, is forced to sleep on the couch, and is sent out of the house to play whenever there is a serious family discussion or argument—which occurs at regular intervals throughout the play.

     Walter Lee's wife, Ruth (Deidrie Henry), is again pregnant, and given the condition of their apartment and the family squabbles, is considering having an abortion. Her husband, an incompetent dreamer, is so belittled by his chauffeur job that he is near the level of despair suggested by the title's quote from the Langston Hughes poem, "A Dream Deferred."

     The family's major battle is over money, the insurance left by the death of the father. For Lena the decision over the money is an obvious one: a part of it will go for Beneatha's education as a doctor, the other for a new home in Clybourne park. But her son's loss of manhood and despair forces her to hand over some of the money so that he may play the role of the family head. Without even depositing the amount, he invests it in a shoddy deal with a friend to open a bar, only to find that the crook has absconded with the whole sum.

     What struck me as particularly interesting in this play is the fact that the issues it raises are still current. The most interesting character of the drama is Beneatha, a strong young woman determined to make a success through education, an opinionated being who is also fascinated by her lost African roots. When her education money goes missing, she is still determined to travel with her friend, Joseph Asagi (Amad Jackson) to his homeland in Nigeria, in order  to experience new worlds and sights.

      The final straw that breaks this family is the racist reaction of the "welcoming" committee to their new home, represented by the white Mr. Karl Linder (Scott Mosenson), who tries to skirt the issue of racism by describing a sense of community difference from their own: this community is even willing to buy the house at a higher price than they have paid! At first, all family members join in their disdain of the proposal, quickly showing him the door. But the saddest moment of the play comes when, having lost the remaining money, Walter Lee, completely giving up their dreams, decides to capitulate, agreeing the Clybourne community's offer.

      No sweetness in these choices, I can assure you. That these troubling issues were spoken in a play of 1959 by a Black woman, moreover, is startling. Hansbery may not be an adventuresome writer, but she is certainly a forceful voice and a strong social conscience.

     The only problem with the version, directed by Phylicia Rashad that I attended was some of the character's attempts to play to the obviously sympathetic audience. The character of Walter Lee, in particular, was often played for humor. There is indeed irony, if not outright humor, in many of Hansbery's lines, but to milk that in a role centered upon despair defeats the playwright's purpose. Since Beneatha, in her more sophisticated thinking, is almost an outsider to her own family, she was saved from these winking asides, and was the stronger figure for it.

      Yet overall and over all these years, Hansbery's A Raisin in the Sun remains a strong American statement of faith and strength against the daily travails of inner city life. If that means these characters or this play are somehow "sweet," then call me a populist—something no one has ever described me as being before.

Los Angeles, March 14, 2012

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