Watching the first preview performance of Dramaworks' A Raisin in the Sun highlighted, for me, the genius of this theatre company. By sticking with classics of contemporary theatre, the essence of Dramaworks' oeuvre is relevancy, to our times, and to the experiences of its audiences. They tap into the Zeitgeist like no other theatre company we have known, and Ann and I have seen many.
Growing up and living in New York City and its environs, and frequently traveling to London where the West End beckoned, gave us the luxury in choosing what we wanted to see and, in effect, make our own "season" of the plays and musicals most worthy of the time we could devote to the theatre. Living, now, in South Florida, we are more dependent on just a few theatre venues, and the confluence of our interests and the development of Dramaworks into a full-fledged leading regional theatre is providential. They do the selection for us!
A Raisin in the Sun has a special relevancy as it is based on fact and portrays a time which is indelibly etched in my memory. Lorraine Hansberry's father bought a house in the Washington Park section on the South Side of Chicago and the Hansberry family became a victim of racially restrictive neighborhood covenants preventing Afro-Americans from renting or buying there. The case ultimately went to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile the young author later remembered the long fight that "required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house." The emotional toll this took resulted in the first play by an Afro-American woman to open on Broadway -- a smash hit for two years, with a predominantly black cast, evidence in itself that change was already underway and gathering momentum.
It also has a special relevancy to me as I grew up in a neighborhood not unlike Clybourne Park, the lily-white middle class neighborhood the Younger family in the play plans to move into. Richmond Hill, Queens, a suburb of NYC, could also be defined as Karl Linder (the one white character in the play) portrays Clybourne's residents, a community of people "who've worked hard as the dickens,....not rich or fancy people,...just hard-working, honest people who don't really have much but those little homes....[And] at the moment, the overwhelming majority of people out there feel that people get along better take more of a common interest in the life of the community when they share a common background."
All of this of course is code for racism and I witnessed it first-hand when I was very young. Our home was marginally on the "right side of the tracks," north of Atlantic Avenue but we moved north of Jamaica Avenue as minorities encroached. I don't have a photo of the house when I lived there but, remarkably, Google street view shows it still looking pretty much the same (with the familiar telephone pole in front).
Of course at the time I didn't understand any of this but I remember discussions, and "fear" expressed about the "Negroes" who were moving in. It was so endemic in our middle class, mostly German, neighborhood (ironically, Karl Linder's probable ethnic background), it was simply the way things were. You accepted it. It took the Little Rock desegregation crisis to bring another take on "reality" for me, then the three freedom riders that were beaten and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, and finally seeing Malcolm X in college to raise my consciousness. Amazing to think A Raison in the Sun debuted on Broadway in 1959!
But a great play does not merely recount historical facts, it is steeped in profound passion, character development, and universal themes which give meaning to what it is to be human and vulnerable. In "preparing" to see this production we had secured tickets last summer to see the Pulitzer and Tony award winning Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris in New York, which is both sort of a prequel and sequel to Hansberry’s groundbreaking work. Norris' work is an exercise in cynical acerbity on the topic of racism. Perhaps progress has been too glacial for Norris but I see it differently, and while Clybourne Park had its philosophical merits and some clever, even comic dialogue, it lacked the raw emotion of Raisin.
Hansberry writes about the Younger family, holed up in a small apartment in Chicago's Southside, but the matriarch of the family has inherited $10,000 from an insurance policy upon the death of her husband and she is intent on using the money for the betterment of her family, all of whom live with her in the apartment, her son, Walter Lee and his wife, Ruth, along with their child, Travis, and Walter's sister, Beneatha.
The title of the play comes from Langston Hughes' poem A Dream Deferred. But it is not only that line from the poem that enters the play, it is about "what happens to a dream deferred." Does it "fester," "stink," "become crusty and sugary," "sag," "or does it just explode?" The play is all of these, gathering energy that leads to an explosive climax.
The classic American dream theme that is part of the collective consciousness of the American theatre, and literature as well, the illusion that wealth in itself is the dream, is evident here too, with Walter scheming to use some of his mother's insurance money to buy into a liquor store:
Mama: “Son, how come you talk so much ‘bout money?”
Walter: “Because, it is life, Mama!”
Mama: “Oh—so now its life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom use to be life—now its money. I guess the world really do change…”
Walter: “No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.”
But all the characters are dealing with their own dreams. Mama wants a house and a garden, a better life for her children, and her son to measure up to her dead husband who was honorable and worked all the days of his life : “I seen…him…night after night…come in …and look at that rug…and then look at me…the red showing in his eyes…the veins moving in his head…I seen him grow thin and old before he was forty…working and working and working like somebody’s old horse…killing himself…and you—you give it all away in a day.”
Mama's dream of a better place to live is shared by Walter's wife, Ruth, for themselves, and their child, Travis. And she shares in the hope that Walter will do the right thing, quit drinking, but Walter disappoints more often than not: “Oh let him go on out and drink himself to death! He makes me sick to my stomach!”
And Walter's sister, Beneatha, has dreams about becoming a Doctor. Some of Mama's insurance money is earmarked for medical school. She is also seeking out her identity as an Afro-American through her Nigerian friend, Asagai.
Even Karl Lindner, the spokesperson for the Clybourne Park Association lives in his own dream world, thinking his is a "rational argument" for the Youngers not to move into the community, that "Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities." And he personifies so much of the problem of racism, believing his own delusions, even thinking he is doing a kindly favor for them.
Hansberry weaves these counterpoint dreams together in an intense drama which Dramaworks brings to life. It is a beautifully written play, gut retching at times, and this I know from the number of Kleenexes Ann went through during the performance. (Actually, me too.)
Before last night's preview performance we had an opportunity to meet the actors and the Director, Seret Scott. The normally invisible hand of the Director was laid bare in this pre-preview gathering of the cast and crew. In less than a month of, first, readings, and then blocking, and then rehearsals, Ms. Scott had successfully developed a special cohesiveness of the actors, most of whom had never met each other before, that carried over into the production. The voices she needed to present the many tiered themes in the play had become bonded to the extent that we felt like we were witnessing a real family on stage. Their joy of working together clearly came through in the preview performance last night. It was a wonderful experience to be able to hear about the process and to see the results.
Casting is one of Dramaworks' strong points (among many) and again Dramaworks' Producing Artistic Director Bill Hayes' tireless quest to find the right actor for each part of the plays he selects for the season shines. This is a large cast, all terrific, but it is the four leading roles that carry much of the play, and their performances were extraordinary.
Ethan Henry who plays Walter Lee Younger carries much of the heavy emotional weight of the play. Walter lives in the shadow of his father but he is a father himself as well as an Afro-American man who, working as a chauffeur, has been exposed to the privileged white man's world, and the consequent humiliation he feels returning each night to his mother's apartment, and to his wife, son and sister. He wants to be a man, the man and his scheme to make a fast bundle with part of his father's insurance money turns bad and just reinforces the humiliation he has carried all his life. Ethan Henry plays this role with such force and physical presence, it seemed to suck all the air out of the theatre and silence a normally fidgeting audience. I don't like to make comparisons, but he reminded me so much of one of my favorite actors, Denzel Washington. It is no easy feat to pull off this role to such an extent that one does not need to compare his performance to Sidney Poitier's. Ethan Henry establishes his own vision of Walter Lee Younger.
And while Claudia McNeil might be considered the gold standard for playing the role of Lena Younger, the matriarch of the family, Dramaworks' Pat Bowie plays it with such quiet, sometimes agonizing, dignity, her performance will be the one I remember going forward. Her love of her family, her final forgiveness of her son which paves the way for his redemption, is the rock on which the family ultimately builds its future. Ms. Bowie expressed her own feelings about what makes this play so great at the pre-preview gathering, saying essentially that it is a play about people, universal in its themes and she quoted one of the lines she says to her daughter in the play: "Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When he's done good and made things easy for everybody? That ain't the time at all. It's when he's at his lowest......and he can't believe in himself because the world's whipped him so!." I held my hand to my chest, looking at her and she looked back and smiled. It is that kind of connection that carried over into her performance.
Lena is convinced that by buying a house for her family, it will restore their disintegrating lives to a level of dignity -- especially her son who she no longer understands: “It’s just a plain little old house—but it’s made good and solid—and it will be ours. Walter Lee—it makes a difference in a man when he can walk on floors that belong to him…” Indeed.
Walter's wife, Ruth, is played by an experienced Shakespearian actor, Shirine Babb. She shares in the horror of witnessing the downfall of Walter, and she fears for her family, her son Travis, as well as her unborn child. Ms. Babb suppresses that horror to a level of stoicism at times which quickly rises to exuberant expectations in anticipation of moving and what that will mean for her family. She sheds tears at one moment, sometimes on the other side of the stage seeing Walter's rage (mostly directed at himself), and then joy as Lena talks about the future and what the house will mean. Ms. Babb was a delight to watch walk that difficult line on stage.
Beneatha is played by Joniece Abbott Pratt who carries the role of the emerging educated generation -- seeking to become a Doctor on the one hand and on the other trying to understand her African roots. She is conflicted as her boyfriend George (played admirably by the New York based actor Jordan Tisdale) is an educated, even wealthy black, but one who is trying to distance himself from his heritage. On the other hand, she has another suitor, Joseph Asagai (sensitively played by Marckenson Charles) who is a student from Nigeria, wanting to go back to his country and take Beneatha, introducing her to African culture, bringing her recordings of native African drums (to which Beneatha dances in her African dress also given to her by Asagai). He even convinces Beneatha to change her hair to Afro-natural, which shocks George, but Beneatha finally wears with pride.
He is the one who speaks the truth to Beneatha when she is at her nadir after Walter has squandered the money, giving her another perspective, "There's something wrong when all the dreams in this house......depended on something that might never have happened......if a man had not died. We used to say back home......'Accident was at the first and will be at the last......but a poor tree from which the fruits of life may bloom.'....I see only that you, with all of your keen mind......cannot understand the greatness of what your mother tried to do. You're not too young to understand. For all of her backwardness......she still acts, she still believes that she can change things. So she is more of the future than you are."
So Ms. Pratt has to walk a thin line as part of the family and as a symbol of striving and of the future which she does with aplomb.
David A. Hyland plays the mild mannered Karl Lindner, the representative from the Clybourne Park Association, who has the task of buying off the Youngers so they don't move into his frightened community. It's a difficult role to play as he is not a mean racist, but merely a product of his times, and Hyland makes it look easy.
In this particular production, Travis was played by Mekiel Benjamin, a local 8th grader, wide-eyed with wonderment during the pre-preview get-together, but as he has already had some acting experience, he proved that he was just perfect for the part last night.
And finally, not a character, but a symbol, is Lena's plant, a fragile thing that she has nurtured in the mostly sunless apartment, but she is determined to carry with her to her new home. Beneatha asks her what she's doing with that old withering plant and Mama says “Fixing my plant so it won’t get hurt none on the way…” Incredulously Beneatha says: "Mama, you going to take that to the new house?” “Un-huh“ “That raggedy-looking old thing?” To which Mama replies, "It expresses ME!”
Originally a three act play, Dramaworks has opted to change it to two acts, the first running about 1 hour 20 minutes, but that time passed quickly. The explosive second act's denouement is one of redemption, not tragedy, and one gets the sense that the future will be better, that progress is being made. Bill Hayes said he wanted to produce more plays that make statements about racism and he could not have found one that puts a very human face on the topic, or improve upon this production. Congratulations to Dramaworks, the cast, and crew for their dedication that resulted in this outstanding production.
A brief word, about the carefully crafted set design by Paul DePoo, the excellent period costume designs by Brian O'Keefe, the lighting designs by Joseph P. Oshry that enhanced the set, and the sound design by Rich Szczublewski which included some very appropriate jazz interludes. As usual, stage management by James Danford was flawless.
If Lorraine Hansberry had not died so young, in her mid thirties, who knows what other masterpieces she would have written. Let us be thankful for this one great work and for a local theatre company up to producing it at such a high standard. Prediction: a standing ovation after each performance as there was last night.
A Dream Deferred
by Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
PS A brief follow-up. The Feb. 8 Wall Street Journal had a great review of the play!