Great drama blends the specific and the universal. Sharply drawn characters inhabit a time and place recreated with meaningful detail. But the emotions driving the characters and fueling the conflict extend beyond their circumstances. In A Raisin in the Sun, playwright Lorraine Hansberry balanced timeliness with timelessness. Her play has become a touchstone of 20th-century American theater, as much for the deep chords it still strikes as for its groundbreaking status in its time.
Champlain Theatre's well-crafted current production reminds us that, in America, family dynamics are often as tangled and tense as racial issues. The two-and-a-half-hour show started at a languid pace, allowing the audience to make an emotional investment in the talented lead actors as they developed their characters. The action accelerated as gentle comedy turned to gripping tragedy, and the cast sparked with a chemistry that made the play's running time feel well worth the journey.
A Raisin in the Sun marked a string of theatrical firsts when it premiered in 1959. The 29-year-old Hansberry became the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. Lloyd Richards was the Great White Way's first black director, with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee headlining the predominantly black cast. Hansberry won Best Play from the New York Drama Critics Circle - the youngest person, the first black writer and only the fifth woman to do so. Besides the widespread critical acclaim, the show was a box-office smash.
Its success was replete with irony. Audiences were mostly white, as the play's producer Philip Rose notes in his memoir, You Can't Do That on Broadway! On a 1963 tour to Washington, D.C., the National Theater was "no longer legally segregated" but not "particularly welcoming to black audiences," he remembers. "This group of white, largely affluent theatergoers had expressed their enthusiastic approval" of the play's message about integration. Rose concludes wryly: "After the show they returned home, probably to continue their battle to keep their neighborhoods free of any such intruders."
Hansberry's title is drawn from Langston Hughes' famous poem "Harlem," which asks: "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" The play is set in her native Chicago, where the imminent arrival of a $10,000 life insurance check triggers a spate of dreaming among members of the struggling Younger family. For the first time, each sees a path out of their rat-trap rental apartment in the ghetto.
Thirty-five-year-old Walter Lee wants to be head of the family now that his father has died. But he feels hemmed in by his dead-end job as a chauffeur and emasculated by the gaggle of women at home, who seem to wield more power there than he does. He bickers with his weary wife Ruth and wiseacre baby sister Beneatha. The most potent conflict brews with his mother, who controls the incoming cash.
Matriarch Lena is distressed because the financial windfall, arising from the sorrow of widowhood, has increased her burden rather than lessening it. She doesn't understand why Walter Lee equates money with freedom. "In my time we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North if we could and how to stay alive," she reflects. Lena finally decides to make a down payment on a small house, thinking it will bring her feuding family back together. "It makes a difference in a man when he can walk on floors that belong to him," she declaims.
But there are a couple of catches in this plan. The only house Mama can afford is in an all-white neighborhood, and a "welcoming committee" representative warns the Youngers that they will not be welcomed. Walter Lee's anger escalates: He sees "stars gleaming" that he just "can't reach out and grab." Mama reluctantly gives him control over the remaining money, with disastrous results. Just when all seems lost, however, Walter Lee salvages hope from the desperate situation and earns back his family's respect.
Edgar Davis gave an outstanding performance as Walter Lee, a proud man riding a rollercoaster of emotions. Davis brilliantly evoked Walter Lee's frustration and its source in his desire to be somebody. He radiated energy even when standing still, seeming to pull power from the floor through his feet. Hilarious comic moments, such as the drunken dance on the dining-room table, lent the angry young man an endearing edge. The scenes in which his character is defeated were crushing: Davis curled into himself, slumped and stricken as if he'd been physically beaten.
The trio of lead women partnered well with Davis and with one another. As Ruth, Sheila Collins created a touching portrait that blended fragility and strength. Ruth has many familial roles to juggle: harried wife, overburdened mother, faithful daughter-in-law. Collins bustled with Ruth's endless domestic tasks, while manifesting her weariness in tone and gesture.
By contrast, Amy Burrell-Cormier overflowed with vitality as the high-spirited Beneatha. Her character's sass and intelligence showed in sharp facial expressions and self-assured body language.
Rose Pulliam portrayed Mama most effectively in the lighter scenes. But the actress is considerably younger than the character - Mama is in her early sixties - and the awkward aging makeup and wig seemed to detract from the darker moments, almost as if Pulliam were impersonating someone older rather than embodying her. Nevertheless, as Ruth and Mama, Collins and Pulliam established a charming rapport. Their relationship is essential to the play's momentum: Both women love Walter Lee, and their need to see him succeed drives the action.
Among the solid supporting cast, Colin Cramer gave the strongest performance as Mr. Lindner. The role of the white man tasked with stopping the Youngers from moving into their new home calls for a subtly banal portrait of evil, which Cramer conjured with baby-faced innocence. His parting shot at Walter Lee - "You just can't force people to change their hearts, son" - cuts deeper delivered sincerely than hissed villainously.
Cora Fauser's colorful costumes alone could have evoked the 1950s setting. Splashes of fuchsia and lime green perked up the palette, as did period details such as saddle shoes, knee socks and denim pedal pushers. By contrast, the expansiveness of the Alumni Auditorium stage and its gorgeous maple floor worked against Robert Wolff's set design. The furnishings looked more stylishly eclectic than motley, and the apartment felt more spacious than cramped or "ratty."
On opening night, a major lighting malfunction occurred for several minutes during Act 3, leaving the actors to perform on a dim stage. There was also a terrible directorial decision - since reversed - to use an actual lit cigarette during a scene in Act 1. More than one patron fled for the lobby in respiratory distress.
Despite these minor problems, the Champlain production achieved the play's principal goal: to make you think and feel. In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry was self-effacing as a chorus of critics hailed the premiere of A Raisin in the Sun. But another reaction to the play, a Chicago sermon, moved her deeply. Rabbi Jacob J. Weinstein placed Walter Lee's struggle in historical context, speaking to his synagogue about the shared black and Jewish journey through enslavement and marginalization.
Weinstein said: "It will be recorded that it was often more bitter to have had the name of free men without the substance, than to have had neither the name nor the substance. It will also be recorded that the fetters - the invisible, inchoate fetters - of unspoken prejudices, of social conventions, of property covenants, were much more corrosive in the flesh than the visible chains of tyranny."
Lorraine Hansberry died in 1964 of cancer, when she was just 34 years old. The optimistic ending of A Raisin in the Sun suggests that she never dreamed how corrosive "invisible fetters" would continue to be. Nearly a half century after Hansberry conceived Walter Lee Younger, no demographic group suffers more in America than the young African-American male. The most telling statistic is often repeated: There are more college-aged black men in prison than on campus. The play's theme - how society restricts and even neutralizes black manhood - should be a historical relic. Sadly, it resonates today.