BWW Review: Lorraine Hansberry's Powerful A RAISIN IN THE SUN at American Stage - An Ageless Classic Done Right
"Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain't through learning--because that ain't the time at all...when you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is." --from A RAISIN IN THE SUN
1959 was a very good year for theatre.
In that year, on the musical front, Rodgers and Hammerstein's last effort together, The Sound of Music, tied for the Tony Award for Best Musical with Bock and Harnick's Fiorello! Left out altogether is one of the great musical comedies, Once Upon a Mattress, and perhaps the greatest musical of all time, Gypsy. Regarding the non-musicals, The Miracle Worker garnered the Tony with also-rans that included Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth. And the most important play of that year--one of the towering triumphs of Twentieth Century Theatre--A RAISIN IN THE SUN won no Pulitzer Prize and none of the four Tony Awards that it was nominated for, but significantly, it did earn the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Its young playwright--Lorraine Hansberry--became the first African-American to win that award (she was also the fifth woman and the youngest writer to achieve this honor). She was also the first black woman to have a show open on Broadway. But unlike so many of the other great productions from that year, her play stands as a testament of the power of the very best of American theatre, an inarguable classic that has not been cobwebbed, that does not seem dated nearly sixty years after its premiere.
And its power has not dissipated. Very few plays that don't involve the loss of a dog can leave me blubbering.
The plot of A RAISIN IN THE SUN is as well-known as most plays of the past 100 years. A black family in Chicago, the Youngers, live in roach-infested, cramped quarters and are looking for a means to move on up, but life, circumstances and their own shortcomings seem to get in the way. Walter Younger dreams of a better life, but never seems to be able to do anything about it, so his dreams remain just that--mere dreams. His wife gets pregnant and even wonders if it's best to abort the child rather than have it live in a house devoid of hope. Walter's 20-year-old sister, Bennie, is crackerjack smart, quirky, and knowledgeable, and is torn between two suitors--an understanding African man and a rich, but clueless black man. Will her dreams of becoming a female doctor, hard at any time but near impossible in 1959, come to fruition? And Walter's mother, Lena, is strict in her ways but will do anything for her children and grandchild. A $10,000 check, made possible from the insurance of Lena's late husband, may change the fortune of this family, or will it?
This show lives and breathes with the part of Walter Younger. First made famous by Sidney Poitier, this is perhaps the greatest role for a thirty-something black actor to portray. At American Stage, Enoch King fills the role with so much energy, heartbreak, and power, that there are not enough words to express the admiration for such an astonishing performance. I say he "fills the role" because Walter is one of the more difficult parts to play in American Theatre history. He's all over the place--a man-child refusing to accept his lot in life. He wants to be a better man but doesn't know how.
King must play every emotion imaginable--from joy, to love, to hate, to broken-souled, to surrender, and then ultimately to triumph. And he must change, and we must believe that change. And we must like him even when he's wrong and even we he makes a mistake that can potentially destroy his family. It turns out to be a tour de force we're witnessing, and King leaves us breathless. This is one of the most electric performances I have seen in a long time. He goes all in, no wasted moment. And his heartbreak is our heartbreak. There is a moment late in the play where the tears stream down his cheeks, and we, the audience, have to wipe our collective tears away as well. He's lost, and we're lost. Even those of us who know the show well are caught up in his struggle. This is one performance where we are all in this together--the cast and the audience merging.
Fanni Green as the matriarch, Lena, is the heart and soul of A RAISIN IN THE SUN. Green is so loving as Mama that she may remind you of your own grandmother, no matter what race you are. And the look on her face when her son becomes the man she expects him to be will not soon be forgotten. Green is one of our local godsends, and if you remember her strong work in last year's Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Steel Magnolias before that, then you will be in for a treat because she's even better here.
As Walter's sister, Kiara Hines is so fun to watch, moving lightning fast all over the stage, like a pinball set loose in a machine. We see her change as well, and to see her dispirited near the end is truly heartbreaking. She's more showy than the other parts, but we believe her and like her, much of it due to Hines' fierce performance.
As Ruth, one of the harder roles to play because she doesn't have the same histrionics as the rest of the cast, Sheryl Carbonell is brilliant in her quieter moments. There is an instant where everyone else onstage is ready to give up, but she so wants her life to change, but her desperate pleas fall on deaf ears. Ruth is drowning, and she knows it, and we know it. It's galvanizing and tears out your heart; she wants out more than anything--a new start for her family and her unborn child. And Carbonnell portrays this winningly.
The rest of the cast is also stellar. Cranston Cumberbatch is soul-breaking in his small, but very important cameo as Walter's friend who has some very bad news. Patrick A. Jackson is quite strong as Bennie's African suitor; his scene where he tries to bring a destroyed Bennie back to reality, back to life, is maybe my favorite moment in a play littered with favorite moments. Troy D. Wallace as George, Bennie's rich suitor, is appropriately snooty and nerdy. Elijah Jordan holds his own as Walter's 10-year-old son, Travis (Jaiden B. Gray plays the role at other times).
In a part that is sometimes wrongly cut from the show, Dee Selmore is hilarious and in a way horrifying as Mrs. Johnson, a woman who says everything with a sneering smile and who can't imagine a black family wanting to move up in the world. She's quite a sight to behold; imagine a night-raiding Mommie Dearest meets Lynne Thigpen. She is so much fun to watch onstage that she turns her one moment into one of the most memorable of the night and nearly steals the show.
Gavin Hawk, who is the only Caucasian in the cast, plays the difficult part of Karl Linder to perfection. The best way to show a "villain" is to smile and seem so nice while saying some truly abhorrent things. If we didn't know Mr. Linder's racist undertones (and later overtones) then we might assume that he's one heck of a nice guy. But what he proposes is so devastating to a proud black family that he must be deemed a "villain." Actually, society is the villain here, and Linder is the symbol of that villainy. It's a small role, but Hawk's nervous-smiling, disquieting presence resonates throughout.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN follows in the space that the August Wilson Century Cycle filled for the past ten years. And it's an out of the park home run. Director L. Peter Callender, guided American Stage's last two very powerful August Wilson plays; it's safe to say that he has outdone himself here. This is one beautiful production from a classic script, and everything comes together. Steven Mitchell's scene design, where we see the cramped, cluttered quarters of the Younger family, is marvelously rendered. Joseph Oshry's evocative lighting works wonders, especially in a moment where Walter loses himself in his plight, is on his knees, and the world becomes a spotlight to his struggle and, as it seems, his surrender. Catherine Cann's costume designs are appropriate for the era, and property master Jerid Fox gets all of the details just right--from an old style box of Cheer detergent to a vintage Chicago newspaper with the correct headline.
This is a fine, fine version of A RAISIN IN THE SUN, one of the best you will ever see, even surpassing the movie starring Sidney Poitier. But forget the film. This is a show meant for the stage, and it's an incredibly entertaining journey that rightfully earns its standing ovation and a week extension by popular demand.
Lorraine Hansberry passed away at the age of 34--five years after she wrote the definitive portrait of black family life during the Civil Rights era. Her death was a criminal loss for the theatre world. Although she wrote a couple of other plays, the body of her work that has been denied us cannot go unnoticed. But we have A RAISIN IN THE SUN as a reminder of her greatness, a landmark of the American stage for so many reasons. (It finally got its Tony Award win when the musical version of it, Raisin, reigned victorious for Best Musical in 1973. To top that off, it even, in a way, made up for its Pulitzer Prize slight when Bruce Norris' super smart spin-off, Clybourne Park, won in 2010.)
We should say Lorraine Hansberry's name in hushed tones, as a measure of respect, of awe. She's that fine a writer, worthy of all the admiration that has come her way since this single show premiered so long ago. And we should watch her masterpiece--one of the finest American plays ever written--wherever it's playing, especially when it's given an A+ treatment as it has been at American Stage. You will not find a better production of A RAISIN IN THE SUN anywhere.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN has been extended at American Stage through February 25th. For tickets, please call 727-823-7529 (PLAY).