Basic Black

Lorraine Hansberry's powerful drama A Raisin in the Sun is to the black experience what Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is to that of middle-class Jews. It serves as the bench mark of excellence for all subsequent theatrical productions related to black life. For sheer dramatic energy and satisfying insight, Hansberry's sharp examination of the social milieu of the black family in the 1950s has never been surpassed.

Raisin premiered on Broadway in 1959 and played for 530 performances. It won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play. Directed by Lloyd Richards, the original production featured a seismic performance by Claudia McNeil as the matriarchal Lena Younger, and introduced a dynamic young actor named Sidney Poitier as her tortured son Walter Lee. The 1961 film version directed by Daniel Petrie added Ruby Dee, Diana Sands and Louis Gossett to the McNeil/Poitier core. The richness of the material invites--even demands--such potent performances.

Black Theatre Troupe is celebrating its Silver Anniversary Season with a revival of this seminal play, and it is a joy to report that the power of the play is undiminished.

The title comes from a Langston Hughes poem that asks: "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up/Like a raisin in the sun? . . . Or does it explode?" Hansberry provides the answer with megatonnage to spare.

The setting is the south side of Chicago in the early 1950s. Three generations of the Younger family are crammed into a dilapidated railroad flat, with a bathroom in the hall, shared with another family. One tiny bedroom accommodates Walter Lee and his long-suffering wife, Ruth. Their teenage son Travis sleeps on the living-room sofa. A second bedroom is shared by the collegiate Beneatha and her mother, Lena.

As the play begins, we learn that Lena's husband has recently died, leaving his widow an insurance policy of $10,000. Dazzled by the prospect of so much money, each member of the family has dreams of what that money could mean to his or her life.

Beneatha wants to become a doctor. Walter Lee has plans for investing in a liquor store. Mama Lena longs to move to a real house, where she can plant a garden and see sunshine. Dizzy with dreams, the whole family is hunkered down to make it through one more mundane day until the check arrives. In a moment that is as revealing as it is humanly comic, Walter Lee sportily gives his son Travis the 50 cents the schoolteacher has requested for a project, only to have to sheepishly ask for bus fare from his frugal wife, Ruth.

It is in the texture of life that Hansberry's art excels. Beautiful Beneatha is being courted by two young men who give her ample reason to question her "assimilation" into an American culture dominated by whites. One suitor is a rich college kid named George Murchison, who epitomizes such assimilation. His rival is Joseph Asagai, an exchange student from Nigeria. Early in the play, Asagai presents Beneatha with an African batik sarong that is as foreign to her as it would be to George or Emily from Our Town. Lena bemoans that all her family knows of Africa has been gleaned from Tarzan movies.

With measured generosity, Lena decides to divide her husband's legacy among the family members. She puts $3,500 down on a house for them to share and entrusts the remainder to Walter Lee to put $3,000 in the bank for Beneatha's medical studies, leaving the rest for him to invest as he likes. Predictably, the plan miscarries, with deeply felt consequences.

The crisis of the play results when Lena puts the down payment on a house in an all-white suburb, because it was the best buy for her money. Presently, the family is visited by Karl Lindner, a representative from the housing development's "improvement board."

It is evident from his use of the euphemism "you people" that despite his genteel manners, Lindner is a bigot. He offers to buy out the family in order to preserve the purity of the neighborhood. Although this is clearly an issue born in the decade of the 1950s when Americans were heading to the suburbs in massive numbers, it sadly remains relevant to our contemporary circumstances. We may be less overt in our racist actions, but our communities still tend to be concerned about property values when the "wrong element" wants to move in.

To be sure, the play shows some signs of being a period piece. This wholesome black family could hardly imagine the struggles with drugs, crime and AIDS that plague the African-American community today. It was a much more innocent time that Hansberry dramatized, rather like O'Neill's nostalgic Ah! Wilderness. Still, Raisin resonates with thunderous truths undiminished by the passage of 40 years.

Charles St. Clair has assembled a strong cast of honest and touching actors to bring Hansberry's dramatic insights to life. Young Taurean Juve Hughes is exemplary in the part of the schoolboy Travis, while Precious J. Morris is very moving in her staunch stoicism as Ruth. Christian Abrokwah is winning as Asagai, though Gerald Pennington tries a bit too hard for the wry sophistication of Murchison.

Carolyn Parson brings solid believability and convincing intelligence to Beneatha, effectively the emotional spine of the play. I also enjoyed the balanced performance of Steven J. Scally in the token white role, which was played with such slimy obviousness in the Broadway production that it lost all credibility. By contrast, Scally is so believable and "well-intentioned" that he truly makes your skin crawl with recognition.

As Walter Lee, the veteran Ken Love plays with enormous charm and conviction, even though the depth of despair he must display in the penultimate scene was not yet fully realized on opening night.

Similarly, Joyce Gittoes (Lena) does so much that is so lovely and touching that it seems petty to quibble over the size of her optional capacity in the climactic moments. Her performance is rather like hearing a very fine viola in a part written for a cello.

The setting by Chris Haines is perfect in every detail, and becomes more an environment than scenery. This is the most graceful and incisive work done by director St. Clair, and Black Theatre Troupe has mounted a fine replica of this classic play. This honorable incarnation of one of the greatest plays of our time fully deserved the standing ovation on opening night. You will want to stand and cheer the sheer joy that great theatre can inspire with eternal truths.

Black Theatre Troupe's production of A Raisin in the Sun continues through Sunday, April 28, at Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland. For more details, see Theatre listing in Thrills.