Theatre Mirror Reviews - "A Raisin in the Sun"

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note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Carl A. Rossi


by Lorraine Hansberry
directed by Heather Fry

Ruth Younger … Daria Johnson
Travis Younger … Nahshom E. Rosenfeld
Walter Lee Younger … Steven M. Key
Beneatha Younger … Karimah Saida Moreland
Lena Younger … Dosha Ellis Beard
George Murchison … Eric Daley
Joseph Asagai … Emmett Ernest Bell-Sykes
Bobo … Joseph Lanair Burston
Karl Lindner … Sam Botsford

I have long kept in touch with Lorraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN via its wicked parody in George C. Wolfe’s THE COLORED MUSEUM; having renewed my acquaintance via the Footlight Club’s new production I can happily say that though A RAISIN IN THE SUN is a few years shy of being half a century old, it remains one of the warmest, most enlightening American plays ever written. This comedy-drama about the Youngers, a three-generational black family with its ups and downs, begins in a Chicago ghetto and ends en route to a white working-class suburb, held together by a common humanity that transcends skin pigmentation and even --- hurrah! --- today’s political correctness. Ms. Hansberry’s play, which takes its title from Langston Hughes’ poem about dreams deferred, received the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award of its season but the Pulitzer Prize went to Archibald MacLeish’s J.B., instead (who performs that play, anymore?) --- so many mind-bombs continue to implode, here (Ms. Hansberry subtly worked against ingrained stereotypes with such lessons that her race is a hard-working one, that generations of black mothers drum manners and discipline into their children’s heads (and bodies, if need be), and that ghetto families do battle with cockroaches rather than living side by side with them); as with many a kitchen-sink evening, A RAISIN IN THE SUN’s best moments are the everyday give-and-take between parties who continue to love each other through good times and bad; at other times, such as the symbolic potted plant or a Prince Charming in the form of a Nigerian suitor or the last-minute happy ending, realism gives way to a well-crafted entertainment by a playwright who died in her mid-30s and who, to quote the title of a posthumous celebration, was truly young, gifted and black.

The Footlight Club production is far from polished --- some of the tableaus are not focused to the main speaker's advantage and, like the Newton County Players’ SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, its body rhythms are suburban, not urban --- but ‘tis better that everything be this honest and heartfelt rather than slick and kept at arm’s length as, say, the Huntington’s renderings of August Wilson’s cycle (even Steven Orr’s low-budget set evokes an environment from which anyone would want to escape). Director Heather Fry keeps this RAISIN firmly rooted in the earth and mines a surprising amount of humor whenever she can find it, first drawing her audience in through laughter and then converting them to fellow-Youngers when events start to darken. There are really two plights being told, here: just as the Youngers strive to break free from their ghetto, Ms. Fry’s appropriately “colored” ensemble encapsulates every Boston-area black artist striving to be heard and seen in this still-segregated area. I was amazed when told that many competent --- and local! --- black actors had to be passed over at RAISIN auditions (who are they? where have they been?) but even with such abundance, I cannot imagine a better Walter Lee Younger played with simmering, understandable anger by Steven M. Key or the Old Testament matriarch Lena Younger brought to beautiful life by Dosha Ellis Beard without once going over the top but, rather, by making her points through rock-firm understatement, or Daria Johnson’s earth-mother Ruth Younger, alternately sassy and maternal to both husband and son. (A fine, telling moment: when the obligatory white-villain blurts out the true nature of his visit, Mr. Key’s Walter Lee plumps down, closer, using his sudden proximity to intimate his foe.) On the night I attended, there was enough of a black audience to provide the familiar running commentary which, in turn, encourages black ensembles to relax and “go home” with their performances --- but what shall be the fate of Footlight’s production regarding who and how many will attend? Should black audiences stay away because “colored” isn’t fashionable anymore, that is their cultural loss; if Ms. Fry’s ensemble plays to predominantly white audiences, they will play to a sympathetic silence akin to an anthropological lecture (i.e. “so that’s what they’re like!”). If everyone stays away, period, who knows when and where these performers shall be made visible, again? In such a cultural landscape where Birnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane before white Boston audiences go to Roxbury, the Footlight’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN is a minor miracle and, paradoxically, a major event. Boston-area audiences and artists of ALL colors can’t --- and mustn’t --- live on black musicals, forever. Or, sadly, can they?

"A Raisin in the Sun" (2-17 February)
7A Eliot Street, JAMAICA PLAIN, MA 02130
1 (617) 524-3200

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide