BWW Reviews: Drying Like A RAISIN IN THE SUN at Rochester's Geva Theatre
Lorraine Hansberry's A RAISIN IN THE SUN is one of those canonic, American plays that is a regional theater favorite and is almost undisputedly good. This means Hansberry's writing is rarely questioned, and the viability of the show being well-received by audiences also goes without skepticism. However, in Geva Theatre's production, director Robert O'Hara's artistic license with Hansberry's script is close but no cigar.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN, set in a dumbbell tenement on Chicago's South side in 1955, is about a family struggling to deal with the death of its patriarch. The play starts with the family in a state of angst and frustration from what the character Beneatha calls "acute ghetto-itis." The deceased Walter Lee Younger's death brings his family a $10,000 check from a life insurance policy and each family member has an idea of how to use the money. Beneatha wants to use the money to pay for school. Walter Lee Jr. wants to use the money to go into the bar business. Mama/Lena Younger, perfectly rendered by Lynda Gravatt, wants to use the money to purchase a house in the suburbs, and Walter Lee's wife is content to do whatever her mother-in-law wants.
This is not the Samuel French version of A RAISIN IN THE SUN, but an unedited version that contains scenes and plot elements that many theatres often leave out.
To start, the grandfather's ghost is haunting the apartment, a plot element that is on a version of Hansberry's script, but is often left out. The set is incredibly designed by Clint Ramos. Taking on the look of the world's smallest haunted house, there are holes in the ceiling, exposed framing, missing walls, everything is dirty, the furniture looks as if it was never new and privacy is not an understood concept. This is a place where the floor is more intact than the ceiling, perhaps an indication of the family's state. What was confusing is whether these Grey Gardens-esque conditions were supposed to be an indication of what it felt like to live in this tight space, or whether this is the actual place, which seems unrealistically dilapidated, especially since the family is dressed decently, has a regular doctor and Beneatha has purchased everything from a guitar to a riding habit in an attempt to find herself.
Despite the off elements of the ghost and extreme poverty, the cast really seemed to find their rhythm in Beneatha (Jessica Frances Duke) and Walter's (Bowman Wright) infamous Nigerian dance scene, which was given a mystical touch by Japhy Weideman's red, green and yellow lighting effects. Wright and Duke get it right in this scene and theatricality is at its acmE. Wright delves into Walter Lee's emotions most when he is portraying him as drunk.
But then there's another wrong turn. After the dance sequence, Walter and Ruth have an intense exchange where she is offering him warm milk to sooth his hangover, and he erupts, asking her why she is always trying to offer him something to eat. Ruth replies, "What else can I give you Walter Lee?" and just as she is about to walk out the door Walter grabs her and pulls her into the bedroom of this dilapidated apartment for sex, even though they have not touched each other the entire play. And to make matters worse, the lights are then dimmed and sexual moans are played over the speaker system and the sequential dialogue is done in the dark over the speakers.
O'Hara does not stop there. The ending (spoiler alert) is all but business as usual. Just when it seems the yelling and emotional disarray has started to subside, the set recedes and the façade of the Youngers' new, yellow brick suburban home drops from the ceiling and little Travis-the sixth generation of his family in the United States-stands in front of the house to find the word "NIGGER" spray painted in red across the front. And scene.
O'Hara's shocking ending, sex scenes and ghosts did not work because there was no indication in the pacing of the play that they should. At the top of the show everyone is already yelling and obviously angry without restraint (with the exception of Daphne Gaines as Ruth). There was no emotional build, so when Mama says to Walter Lee that she does not allow any yelling in her house, one wants to respond, "Really, because everyone has been yelling for the past hour?" These actors were straining to the point of sounding hoarse and winded, discounting some of the real, dramatic moments.
However, there are some nice exchanges between Beneatha and her socially, politically conscious Nigerian love interest Joseph Asagai (Tyrien Andre Obahnjoko). A scene with Lena and the nosy neighbor (which is left out of some productions) Mrs. Johnson (Perri Gaffney) who comes by to share news of Black families' homes being bombed in the suburbs, is hilarious. Hansberry was truly ahead of her time in using the stage to highlight the class differences between Black Americans and Africans, as well as the socio-economic and educational divides between Black Americans.
What O'Hara's borderline artistic license does is make this timeless story seem difficult to relate to. There are some plays that are so canonized that you have to play them straight, and this production could have benefitted from that.