While Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play, A Raisin in the Sun, in the 60th anniversary production first staged at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2019, remains powerful and engrossing, director Robert O’Hara’s resolutely innovative production is a mixed blessing. Some will like O’Hara’s additions and changes; other will be averse to them. It will be a matter of personal taste. However, the play does seem less emotional than in previous productions which can be due to the fact the play has been made very familiar from Broadway revivals in both 2004 and 2014 and two movie versions or it can just be that O’Hara’s agenda vitiates it.
Though six decades separate us from the times in which Hansberry wrote this play, its themes and messages about poverty, racism, red-lining and self-improvement are still pertinent. (Has nothing much changed?) Set in a South Chicago tenement two-bedroom apartment that the Younger family describes as a rat trap with the shared bathroom down the hall, A Raisin in the Sun (named for a line in Langston Hughes’ iconic poem) introduces us to elderly Lena Younger, her college age daughter Beneatha, her chauffeur son Walter Lee, Jr., his wife Ruth, a domestic servant, and their ten-year-old son Travis who is in elementary school. The family is awaiting a $10,000 life insurance check as the patriarch Big Walter, Walter Lee, Senior, a laborer, has recently passed away which they think will change all of their lives – and they are not wrong.
Each of them sees it as the fulfillment of their long deferred dreams: Walter Lee wants to invest in a liquor store with his street friends Bobo and Willy; Beneatha has always wanted to go to medical school; and Lena wants a little house somewhere that will give Travis his own room and a back yard to play in. Ruth who has discovered she is pregnant does not want to bring up another child in this cramped tenement where Travis has to sleep on the living room couch. Lena objects to investing in liquor and on her own puts a $3500 deposit on a small house in the all-white working class neighborhood of Clybourne Park, cheaper than the houses available in Black neighborhoods. Seeing Walter Lee’s discontent with his job, his life, his home and his marriage, Lena decides to give him the rest of the money, $3000 to be put in a bank account for Beneatha’s education and $3500 for Walter to spend as he likes.
However, can Walter Lee be trusted and, more to the point, can his friends Bobo and Willy be trusted? Things come to a boil when Mr. Lindner, representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association visits to offer to buy the house back for more than they have paid as people “are happier when they live in their own communities.” Beneatha is dating her rich classmate George Murchison who is so assimilated to white culture that he has almost entirely lost his Black identity as well as Nigerian exchange student Joseph Asagai who feels that Beneatha is mutilating her hair by straightening once a week. She eventually receives a proposal of marriage and must make a decision about her life.
As a playwright, O’Hara has written hilarious in-your-face plays. His changes and additions to A Raisin in the Sun are more in the manner of underlining what is already there and making it more literal. He has the actors make use of the technique of overlap in the opening scene where they speak at the same time as others drowning them out. Families do this in real life but one suspects that Hansberry wanted her words to be understood by the audience, particularly in the beginning of the play. Both the beginning and ending have new moments added. Instead of the play beginning with Ruth making breakfast and the family rushing to use the bathroom before their neighbors the Johnsons, it now starts with a silent scene in which Walter Lee carries his sleeping son Travis out from the bedroom and puts him on the sofa. (Are we to assume that Walter Lee has just come home and that Travis has been sleeping in his bed with his wife Ruth? Has Walter Lee been out drinking until late?) Every time Lena mentions her late husband Walter Lee, Senior, his ghost appears in the guise of Calvin Dutton (also doubling as Bobo) leaving little to the audience’s imagination. Alex Jainchill’s lighting is required to dim for these scenes underlying the fact that this is a fantasy or an hallucination.
The scene with neighbor Mrs. Johnson, the bigoted, narrow-minded Black neighbor, cut in the original production but published in the first pined edition, has been put back which is the first time it has been seen in New York. Aside from the fact that the five page scene makes the play a bit longer, nothing which is said adds anything we don’t already know. A conversation which is usually cut between Walter Lee and his son Travis at bedtime has been put back but doesn’t reveal anything new. Walter Lee’s famous scene in which he tells his family why he is willing to accept Mr. Lindner’s check not to move to Clybourne Park now has him coming down to the footlights, breaking the fourth wall and spitting out his lines directly at the audience as though we are being accused. It is still powerful but tears at the fabric of this domestic drama. However, the new ending makes explicit what we always suspected happens next.
While the actors seem less emotional and more the mouthpieces for different viewpoints, they are still very effective. However, while the evidence of the film version (which used seven of the original actors) placed Sidney Poitier’s Walter Lee at the center of the play, here the women are so strong as to shift the focus to them: Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins makes the mother Lena the central character and even when she is off stage in another room or out of the apartment she dominates the family. As the college age student, Paige Gilbert’s Beneatha is always the rebel whether she is telling off her family or the men in her life. Mandi Masden’s Ruth carries the weight of the family on her shoulders and is resolute about giving up her pregnancy if it means adding another person to the already overcrowded Younger apartment.
Francois Battiste makes Walter Lee a very conflicted man in his 30’s, unhappy at home and at work and with dreams that seem never going to come true. It works in the context of the play but makes him weaker than the women in his family. Alternating with Camden McKinnon in the role of Travis, Toussaint Battiste is a totally believable ten year old, working with his actual father as Walter Lee. Mister Fitzgerald as the entitled George Murchison and John Clay III as the worldly Joseph Asagai make an interesting contrast, both assured in their own way about their beliefs and differing lifestyles. As Mr. Lindner, the only white character in the play, Jesse Pennington seems too laid back and restrained as the white supremacist come to plead his case rather than a very embarrassed man trying not to say anything insulting. Perri Gaffney does not make a case for the petty and opinionated Mrs. Johnson, not making as much of her role as could be done with it.
The physical production is quite splendid, telling us all we need to know about the Youngers’ life. Clint Ramos’ cramped apartment with the stained and peeling wallpaper and the stove pipes across the living room and dining room walls reveals why the Youngers wish to move. The 1950’s costumes by Karen Perry define each character in every scene. Aside from the fantasy sequence, Jainchill’s lighting generally gives us pale daylight through the open window. Nikiya Mathis is responsible for the evolving hair and wig designs. The movement and dance sequences have been staged by Rickey Tripp.
This 60th Anniversary production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun demonstrates how well the play has held up, as well as how it still speaks to us today. While Robert O’Hara’s additions make the production new they do not all add anything necessary to the play. However, the cast is so good that they are not affected by these changes and carry the day making this a must-see evening in the theater. Now, it would be exciting if some innovative American theater company would stage Hansberry’s last play, Les Blancs, not seen in New York since its world premiere in 1970. A third New York revival of her second full length play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window will be mounted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the spring with Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and Oscar Isaac (Scenes from a Marriage) under the direction of Anne Kauffman who staged the play at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2016.
A Raisin in the Sun (extended through November 20, 2022)
The Public Theater
Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: three hours and ten minutes including one 18 minute intermission