What happens to a dream deferred? Langston Hughes’ seminal poem, “Harlem”, helped seed Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece, “A Raisin in the Sun”, a work which set off seismic rumblings still felt today. Produced for the first time at Arena Stage, the problems of the Younger family presented fifty-six years ago still seem immediate and familiar.
Thanks to Tazewell Thompson’s muscular direction, every conflict – and there are plenty of them – has its share of sympathy as well as grit.
The ten thousand dollar life insurance check, waited for, counted on, dreamed about, becomes no small player itself as the needs of this three generation family come to the fore. Inspired by an event in Hansberry’s own childhood, the matriarch, Lena (Lizan Mitchell), makes the bold decision to buy a small house in Claibourne Park, an all- white neighborhood. And it’s 1959. She also has enough money to foster the dreams of her two children, and puts son Walter, Jr. in charge of the accounts. This turns out to be the fatal flaw in an otherwise gently heroic life of struggle.
Ms. Mitchell’s performance is truly the magnetic force that keeps the family’s storms from tearing them apart. Tiny, vigorous, soft with her grandson, hard as flint when the name of God is belittled, she approaches each moment with a diamond clarity and masterful timing that can find the humor in a moment or its pain.
Donald Eastman’s set design for the Fichandler’s four-sided space makes a virtue of limitations by showing us the main living space of the Youngers’ cramped quarters where the furnishings are respectable but second-hand, clean but well-worn.
Will Cobbs as Walter, Jr. brings an explosive tension with him at every entrance, and his marriage to Ruth (Dawn Ursula) is filled with collapsed hopes, burned out romance and frequently broken truces. He is the wild card in the deck – the one who, obsessed with money and financial gain, must ultimately decide the value of his own manhood.
The play seems to emphasize mismatches and less than ideal pairings. Walter and Ruth radiate the sullen resentment of two people who know they have disappointed each other. She counters his wild ambitions with the steadfast weariness of a woman trapped in her work as a domestic and her life as the wife of an angry man chasing dreams. The discovery that she is pregnant again becomes a touchstone for revealing how this family sees its future.
Pulling in her own direction is Walter’s sister, Beneatha (Joy Jones) “the first person in the history of the human race to brainwash herself.” Her medical studies are only second to her search for identity, and as an aspiring doctor, self-proclaimed atheist, and African National wannabe, she seems strangely out of place. Two gentlemen callers reflect the two sides of her struggle.
The rich but steadfastly traditional George (Keith Smith) seems to frighten Beneatha with his symbols of the status quo, and Walter can’t resist shooting down his expensive clothes and white shoes even as he longs for them. Joseph Asagai, on the other hand, (Bueka Uwemedimo) a first generation Nigerian, radiates natural wisdom and shows Benny to herself as he holds up the mirror of affection and reason to her wildly reactionary impulses.
Hansberry was too good a writer to fall into the all good/all bad trap, and Lena recognizes early on that the idol of money has replaced for her people the idol of freedom. She learns – and Walter discovers too late – that a future equality also holds that crooks, thieves, and idiots will now be black as well as white.
That ugliness can be soft spoken and have good manners is aptly illustrated with the arrival of Karl Lindner in a smooth performance by Thomas Simpson. He isn’t oily or repellent and he doesn’t twirl a villainous moustache. He speaks in generalities about people trying to understand each other – and how they should try to understand that the white neighbors don’t want them moving in.
At almost three hours, many plays run out of gas, losing their strength in an overworked redundancy. Not this one. So keen edged are the conflicts and so high are the stakes that attention is never allowed to waver. “A Raisin in the Sun” is also unique in that what appears to be a happy ending is anything but.
While the Youngers tumble enthusiastically out of the shabby little apartment and into the world of “the takers and the tooken”, it is we, the audience, who are left behind with the fatalistic knowledge of what awaits them.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired drama and English teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “A Raisin in the Sun”
Where: Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St. SW
Call: (202) 488-3300 or visit arenastage.org
Playing through May 21