What does A Raisin in the Sun - Lorraine Hansberry's classic tale of a family trapped in a Chicago ghetto in the '50s - have to say to the generation that has just elected the first African-American president?Ê Raisin is, in many ways, an old chestnut - the prototype of the "Mama on the Couch" plays satirized by George Wolfe in The Colored Museum.
Raisin tells the story of the Younger family and their struggle to rise above the poverty and isolation of the ghetto. Lena Younger is about to receive a $10,000 insurance check following the death of her husband. She wants to buy a house for her family in the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood, but her son Walter Lee has other ideas. Should she invest in his dream or her own?
The play is built around characters who we have come to think of as stereotypes: the long-suffering mama who struggles to hold the family together, the son with the chip on his shoulder, the successful college student ready to explore her African heritage with a handsome Nigerian, the little boy who is the apple of his grandma's eye, the wife and mother who is always ironing.
And yet, the 1959 production of A Raisin in the Sun was a landmark event on Broadway.Ê In the words of James Baldwin, "Never before in the history of the American theatre had so much of black people's lives been shown on the stage." It is this intimacy that gives A Raisin in the Sun its enduring power, and David Alan Anderson as Walter Lee who gives the Play House production its deepest moments of truth
Swaggering around the kitchen with his shirt tail hanging out, drinking a bottle of Schlitz, accusing his wife and mother of failing to support him, Anderson somehow makes us love and care for this deeply flawed man as though he were our own, as though he belonged to us, and like Mama, we had to decide how much to love him, how and where to draw the line.
Light-skinned and aristocratic, Franchelle Stewart Dorn's first appearance onstage as Mama is somewhat jarring. Her drawl is likewise unexpected, high-pitched and strident, as irritating to us as it must be to the hapless Walter Lee. And yet she loves her son. We see that as clearly as we see the tension between them.
Hovering above them is the image of the absent father, the man who worked himself to death and left behind the legacy that is tearing the family apart.Ê Like Hamlet's father's ghost, he bequeaths his son an impossible project: to succeed in a world that does not acknowledge his manhood.
Perhaps it's only now that the votes have been cast and counted that we can afford to fully experience the pain of Walter Lee or the bite of an acerbic Mama who lacks the dark-chocolate sweetness of an Ethel Waters.
Lou Bellamy, founder of the Penumbra Theatre Company, directs a superb cast that includes Bakesta King as Walter's sister Beneatha, an ambitious young college student whose success is a constant reminder of his own failure to achieve. Erika LaVonn plays Walter's wife Ruth, who struggles to love him while trying to do a better job with their son Travis, played by young Aric Generette Floyd of Cleveland. Patrick O'Brien makes a cameo appearance as Karl Lindner, the bloodless, bow-tied representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association.
A Raisin in the SunÊThrough November 30 Cleveland Play House 8500 Euclid Avenue 216.795.7000