Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 1999
"What happens to a dream
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?"
- Langston Hughes "Harlem "
Lorraine Hansberry was 26 when she started writing "A Raisin in the Sun". At 29 she was the first female black playwright to have her work grace a Broadway stage. At 34 she was dead of cancer. It was good that Hansberry heeded Hughes words and pursued her dream vigorously and early in life, because fate did not grant her the luxury of deferrment.
Dreams lived and dreams deferred are at the center of "A Raisin in the Sun", the story of the Younger family, just plain folks from the ghettos of Chicago, who have deferred their dreams for way to long and are beginning to feel the consequences.
The WTF has mounted a powerful production of Hansberry's monumental work. Rather than making "Raisin" a play about just one person's dreams, Hansberry dramatizes the dreams of every member of this extended family. The result is a long, intense drama which could easily fall flat on its face if not carefully cast and directed. Given the time constraints of summer theatre the chance for failure certainly existed, but director Jack Hofsiss and his uniformly brilliant cast defeat failure at every turn. Except for a problematic set, this production could easily move to a Broadway house tomorrow, and probably take the Tony for "Best Revival of a Play" next spring.
"Raisin" centers on the Younger family who are living three generations together in a one bed room apartment in the late 1950's. Lena (Gloria Foster), her two children Walter Lee (Reuben Santiago-Hudson) and Beneatha (Kimberly Elise), Walter's wife Ruth (Viola Davis) and son Travis (James Sneed) form the family unit crammed into this tiny, dreary space. This is the apartment Lena came to as a bride with her late husband, where she raised her children and now her grandchild. Lena, Walter Lee and Ruth all work as domestics in the homes of rich white people, but they are respectable jobs and the Youngers have pride.
As the play opens Lena is expecting a life insurance check for $10,000 - an awful lot of money 40 years ago. How the expectation of this wealth, the reality of having it, and the bitter disappointment of losing it affect each member of the family is the core of this play.
At one point during evening I happened to catch sight of my fellow audience members out of the corner of my eye. And my first thought was "What are all these people doing here?" I had forgotten that I was watching a play. I was so caught up in the life of these people in this apartment that I had lost track of the fact that they were actors on a stage before an audience. That is how darned good this cast and this production is.
I could attempt to single these actors out and find glowing adjectives to describe each one, but it would be a waste of ink. They are all wonderful. Between them they can claim a string of theatrical awards and nominations, whether their careers have been life long or are just beginning. They received a rousing and well deserved standing ovation on opening night.
When so much talent was on the stage and a three hour evening seemed to fly by, why was the set so bothersome? Set designer Michael McGarty has used only the front portion of the AMT stage, building an entire apartment, ceiling and all, on the apron and downstage area, making the space narrower with walls and a hallway stage right, a fire escape stage left. By visually creating the cramped quarters in which the Youngers live McGarty helps us understand why they feel so cramped and long for space and sunshine.
I can understand why McGarty wanted a ceiling on the set. The soaring open heights of a traditional stage set would let in too much light and hope. But with a ceiling getting light on to the action of the play is problematic, so there are skylights cut in to the ceiling, which no tenement apartment would have. And then the ceiling has to be suspended from something in the front to make up for that missing fourth wall, so it is hung from the proscenium arch with many iron struts. The ceiling is built in sections and they don't quite meet. A tenement ceiling might be peeling and sagging, but it would not consist of sections that didn't align properly. And then there's this whole fire escape, catwalk thing with people wandering around on it that winds upwards from stage left to the "roof" of the apartment.
The people on the fire escape and the roof, who I dearly wished would go away during the action of the play, come out on the catwalk snuggled under the proscenium arch itself and sing during scene changes. They sing wonderful soul rending gospel music. They sing of age-old-right-this-minute suffering and joy. They sing the human condition in powerful harmony. If only I didn't feel that they were ducking to avoid wacking their heads on the proscenium arch I would have stood right up and danced in the aisles.
"A Raisin in the Sun" runs through August 1 on the MainStage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs three hours with one intermission. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999