BWW Feature: BOURBON AND RAISINS in Omaha
This has been an unusual weekend for me. I had the privilege of attending two compelling plays written by African Americans about African Americans and performed by African Americans. Both shows are moving presentations that made me laugh. They made me cry. And they made me view the lives of families very different from my own with a new sense of understanding.
Cathy Kurz and Patty Driscoll direct A RAISIN IN THE SUN, written by 28-year-old Lorraine Hansberry. Denise Chapman directs Pearl Cleage's BOURBON AT THE BORDER. Playwrights Hansberry and Cleage both came from educated black families instrumental in the civil rights movement. They wrote from their life experiences, emphasizing the struggle of the black family in mid-20th Century America. These are their stories of two families: the Youngers in early 1950's Chicago and the Thompsons in 1995 Detroit.
Although there are definite similarities between the shows, there are many differences. For example: the locations. It is appropriate for Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre Company's A RAISIN IN THE SUN to be performed in the First Central Congregational Church in Midtown. Lena Younger, family matriarch, proclaims to her daughter Beneatha that there will always be God in her house. The Union for Contemporary Arts Performing Arts Collective's BOURBON AT THE BORDER is performed in an eclectic Omaha neighborhood where the cars outside blast stereos with hard-driving bass, enveloping us with a palpable tension. Inside both venues staging is confined entirely within the set of a single apartment.
The struggles challenging the characters in both plays are grounded in history. In A RAISIN IN THE SUN, the Younger family fights for fair housing in a community that has accepted the practice of redlining. The Federal Housing Administration had legalized segregation in housing, actually drawing red lines around the neighborhoods they refused to insure based on the occupants' race. The Younger family of five is trapped in a small apartment sharing a bathroom down the hall with neighbors. Lena nurtures a metaphoric scraggly houseplant that thrives under her care despite the lack of adequate light from their solitary window. When her late husband's insurance check comes in, Lena dreams of putting a down payment on a house with enough room for each of them and space for a garden.
Charles and May Thompson in BOURBON AT THE BORDER fight a different kind of battle. Their scars result from participating in Freedom Summer of 1964 where they sought to increase voter registration among Mississippi blacks. Instead of government protection, they were met with violence. They were beaten and imprisoned while trying to make a better world for black people. Young African Americans began to doubt that racial equality would be achievable through peaceful means. This train of thought is the ruination of Charles who is institutionalized in a mental facility while May lives with patient endurance until he is released.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN takes its title from the Langston Hughes poem "Harlem" where he says, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" The Youngers all have dreams for the future. While Lena dreams of a house for her family, her son Walter Lee dreams of investing the insurance money in a business where he can be more than a chauffeur and can provide for his wife Ruth and son Travis. His sister Beneatha dreams of becoming a doctor while experimenting with different ways of self-expression through acting or guitar lessons. This check in the mail will fulfill their dreams.
Charles and May Thompson dream of moving across the border to Canada, planting a garden, and forgetting the nightmares from the past.
Friends of the Youngers and Thompsons are important, but they always come secondary to family. As Lorraine Hansberry was reported to have said, you never betray your race or your family. This theme runs throughout both plays. Beneatha has two suitors. George Murchison is a wealthy black man who wants her to fit in. Joseph Asagai is an African intellectual who encourages her to reject assimilation and take pride in her roots. May's best friend, Rosa St. John, lives for good times. When things get tough, May wonders whether Rosa can be that friend who sticks closer than a brother and asks her in a fiery speech where was she when they were trying to change the world.
The men's self-worth is based on their ability to provide for their families. Walter Lee Younger is tired of driving another man's car while Charles Thompson just wants to land a job driving a truck. One wants something better than what he has. The other wants anything because something is better than the nothing he has. Both men drown their frustration with alcohol.
Both plays are laugh out loud funny. Both have sad moments. One ends well. The other does not. Both will evoke unexpected emotion. Both will sit heavy on your mind. But good plays are only good scripts unless you give them life with the right people.
These casts are exceptional.
Kathy Tyree is a powerhouse as Lena Younger. She rules her family and she rules the stage. Her equally talented partner, Jason Gray, runs the gamut of emotions in the tightly wound, troubled Walter Lee. TammyRa Jackson (Ruth Younger) epitomizes the quiet strength of a woman who strives to maintain domestic peace with her unhappy husband while shrugging off the blame he casts upon her. Regina Palmer (Beneatha) inserts light hearted humor into her dismal family as she struggles with self-identity.
Kabin Thomas as Charles Thompson is instantly likeable. He is a big presence who has been broken but keeps trying. LaQuana Billingsley (May Thompson) brings a quiet resilience and unrelenting hope that ensure her sanity in an insane world. Dani Cleveland (Rosa St John) interjects light moments with her sunny world view of bourbon and baubles.
All of the actors give remarkable performances. These are people who can tell the stories in a way that will singe your soul. Don't just see one of these fine plays. See them both.
Photo: LaQuanna Billingsley and Kabin Thomas of BOURBON AT THE BORDER.