Part of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun hinges on whether a black family in 1950s Chicago will be able to move up into a white neighborhood. Can such a play matter to us in 2009?
Consider: My westside Tucson neighborhood neatly reflects the ethnic demographics of the city overall, mostly Anglo and Hispanic, but with proportionate representations of black and Asian families, too; it's happily and naturally integrated. Another point: This week, an African-American family took residence at America's most exclusive address, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C.
So times have changed, redlining A Raisin in the Sun out of the repertory, right? Not so fast. Setting aside the question of integration and race relations, the play is also about something more fundamental: How does a family set priorities for its own advancement? And can people's dreams and passions blind them to certain realities?
A Raisin in the Sun has enough universality and heart to keep it relevant for a very long time, and Arizona Theatre Company has mounted a production that does it full justice.
On Chicago's South Side, the Younger family is about to come into a significant chunk of insurance money. The sum of $10,000 may not seem significant to us, but adjusted for inflation, that's more like $70,000, which can do a lower-class family a whole lot of good. The grandmother, Lena, and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, favor buying a spacious house and moving out of their cramped, ratty apartment. But where does that leave Lena's daughter, Beneatha, who is enrolled in college and facing an expensive education on the way to becoming a doctor? And what about Ruth's husband, Walter Lee, who hopes to invest in a business with his friends, raising himself and his wife from the ranks of chauffer and domestic into the entrepreneurial upper-middle class?
The money won't cover everything, so which investment would be of greatest benefit to the family? And who has the sense and maturity to best take advantage of the windfall?
It looks as if Lena will prevail, but the home she wants to buy is in a white area, and it doesn't take long for the white folks to send someone to try to negotiate them out of the neighborhood before they've even moved in.
A combination of playwright Hansberry's sense of fair play, the finesse of director Lou Bellamy (who did a superb job with Jitney at ATC a couple of years ago) and the sensitivity of actor Patrick Thomas O'Brien creates a neighborhood representative who is not entirely unsympathetic, even though we're seeing him from the perspective of the African-American family. If such a minor figure has this kind of depth, you can imagine the many shades of nuance the cast and director have found in the major characters.
Lena, played authoritatively by Franchelle Stewart Dorn, smoothly shifts from good humor through intimidating iron will to suppressed nostalgia. Ruth (Erika LaVonn) is unfailingly efficient but terribly worn down. Walter (David Alan Anderson) is capable of strutting meanness, yet is motivated more by a very narrow kind of optimism. Beneatha (Bakesta King) is self-centered and intellectually flighty, but her struggle to establish her own identity is sincere.
Part of Beneatha's search for identity leads her to an interest in all things African, including a fellow college student, Joseph Asagai (played engagingly by the single-named Adeoye). It's in the discussions between Beneatha and Joseph that Hansberry best displays her ability to probe several sides of an issue. Beneatha's Afrocentrism is genuine, but seems faintly ridiculous in this struggling household. Joseph has dreams of going back to Africa and perhaps leading his native Nigeria into a glorious post-colonial future. Well, we now know that post-colonial Africa has been dominated by thieves and mass murderers, and Joseph and Hansberry sense already in the 1950s that this could come to pass. Still, Joseph feels compelled to strive for the betterment of his people. And isn't that what the Younger family is considering on a household scale?
Besides the black struggle for upward mobility (in Africa and America), Hansberry also brings in the generational struggle for personal freedom, and the struggle of women in an often matriarchal subculture that paradoxically is rife with misogyny. (By extension, might this nation that is now headed by an AfriKansan soon become more overtly racist, merely through its traditional defiance of authority?)
The one aspect of ATC's terrific production that gives me pause is the set. The old film version of A Raisin in the Sun, confined mostly to the Youngers' apartment, felt cramped and claustrophobic, as do so many translations from stage to screen--but that makes sense in the context of this story. At the Temple of Music and Art, however, the stage is wide, and the proscenium is high, and scenic designer Vicki Smith has to fill it up. The problem is beyond her control; what she has done is beautifully crafted and lovingly detailed, but the theater itself forces the set to open up and out. Yet perhaps the visual metaphor is apt; these confined lives are surrounded by space and freedom, if only they can find a way to reach it.