There are people who will tell you we live in a post-racial society. We have a Black president, they say. All citizens—regardless of ethnic extraction—enjoy the same rights and freedoms. Minorities even get special treatment when it comes to college admission and all sorts of stuff. The playing field is level now.
But even if we didn’t have more evidence than Noam Chomsky can shake a stick at that being born Black in America means you’re more likely to be poor, arrested, incarcerated, assaulted by police, murdered, etc., etc., we should laugh at the idea that the generational setbacks of three centuries of slavery and then a century of Jim Crow could be completely eradicated in all facets of our culture in the half-century since the federal government finally got around to officially recognizing that there was a problem here. Yes, things are better than they were a hundred years ago, but that’s no reason to think we’re home.
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun examines the tilt of the entire playing field by focusing on a single Black family in 1950s Chicago as they struggle rise up to meet their American dreams in the face of the history that is weighing them down.
Tomorrow is a big day for the Youngers. Some months ago the family patriarch died, and his widow Lena (Angela D. Watson) is finally receiving the $10,000 life-insurance payout that may help them break out of the confines of their lives (exemplified by the “rat trap” of an apartment the cohabit). Her children have big dreams for the money: 20-year-old Benetha (Dominique Johnson) plans to go to medical school, while 35-year-old Walter (Derek Shaun) wants to invest with friends in a liquor store on his way to becoming a big-time businessman who will be able to send his son (Tarek Coleman) to any of the world’s finest colleges.
For her part, Lena dreams of a nice little house for the family, with a yard and some sunshine. Sunshine is what Walter’s wife Ruth (Latonya Kitchen) wants, too, although the kind she seeks is figurative. “[S]omething is happening between Walter and me,” she tells Lena. “I don’t know what it is—but he needs something—something I can’t give him any more.” It’s the same thing that befell Walter’s father, Lena says, recalling her late husband’s exact words: “Seem like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams—but He did give us children to make them dreams seem worth while.”
A Raisin in the Sun may have one too many pithy monologs, but they always win you over because they’re always right on. Perhaps the most powerful comes from Joseph (Jeffery Rolle, Jr.), Benetha’s Nigerian suitor. Joseph dreams of going back to his village as an educator and contributing to the slow but sure march of progress:
At times it will seem that nothing changes at all…and then again the sudden dramatic events which make history leap into the future. And then quiet again. Retrogression even. Guns, murder, revolution. And I even will have moments when I wonder if the quiet was not better than all that death and hatred. But I will look about my village at the illiteracy and disease and ignorance and I will not wonder long.
Ultimately A Raisin in the Sun is not about the people at its center, but about the steps they take to help humankind advance toward ever-greater humanity, even when their fellow humans stand in their way.
What surprises about A Raisin in the Sun is that Hansberry manages to find humor along the way. No-one’s going to mistake A Raisin in the Sun for comedy, but her script is populated with both little and big laughs, breaths that lighten the load and infuse the characters with an extra bit of authenticity. The cast always does well in these moments. Particularly good is Dominique Johnson. Benetha is at that age when she is beginning to feel the gravity of adult society, yet she’s still pulled by the petulant vigor of childhood. Johnson’s very deportment seems strung through with that tension.
Of course, there’s a lot more weight than levity, and although a script with so much sententiousness is bound to make the actors seem stilted from time to time, the cast makes Hansberry’s speeches feel like their own. The biggest shortcoming of Long Beach Playhouse’s production is movement. For starters, director Phyllis B. Gitlin has blocked long stretches with this or that side of the audience must spend a significant chunk of time looking at the back of an actor’s head, which is often obscuring another’s face. This may not be entirely avoidable when the action takes place on a long stage with audience on three sides, but considering that this was mostly a non-issue during the Playhouse’s recent production of Pygmalion, Gitlin could have done better.
The production is also a bit weak with its physicality. Not infrequently we catch the actors playing movement rather than simply moving. The most glaring examples are two aggressive moments Lena has with her children. While Angela D. Watson does yeoman’s work with Lena’s relaxed drawl, her moments of near-violence play as the worst kind of stage fighting.
Despite its shortcomings, Long Beach Playhouse’s A Raisin in the Sun effectively immerses us into the Younger household (great job with the entire mise en scène), into the societal plight on post-WWII African-Americans, and into the wearying trudge of social progress. Some truths are never dated, and A Raisin in the Sun will remain more than a mere relic long after the U.S.’s first Black president has left office.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN LONG BEACH PLAYHOUSE • 5021 E ANAHEIM ST • LONG BEACH 90804 • 562.494.1014 LBPLAYHOUSE.ORG • FRI-SAT 8PM, SUN 2PM • $14–$24 • THROUGH JUNE 18
(Photo credit: Michael Hardy Photography)