A Raisin in the Sun
WHEN A RAISIN in the Sun opened in 1959, author Lorraine Hansberry wrote her mother a letter trying to explain the intentions behind her landmark play. At the same time, some African-Americans no doubt felt exposed by the piece, their private laundry strung out on a Broadway stage for all to examine, while fellow playwright LeRoi Jones (a.k.a. Amiri Baraka) and other Malcolm X followers thought the play was too "middle class." Hansberry told her mother she was trying to show whites that blacks were just as complicated as them.
She accomplished that goal brilliantly, and, in staying true to her subject's complexity, tapped a deep well of universality that has kept this play relevant for African-Americans as well as others through nearly 40 volatile years. Reassessing the play in 1987, Baraka wrote, "We missed the essence of the work--that Hansberry had created a family engaged in the same class struggle and ideological struggle as existed in the movement itself... [It] remains... evocative of black and white reality--then and now."
Hansberry took her play's title from Langston Hughes's poem "Harlem," which asks the question, "What happens to a dream deferred?" ("Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?/... Maybe it just sags/like a heavy load./Or does it explode?") Raisin deals with a working-class family whose patriarch has died and left his elderly wife, Lena, a tidy sum of insurance money. Lena wants to buy a house. Her son, Walter Lee, wants to buy a liquor store and quit chauffeuring. His wife, Ruth, is torn between her own dreams of a house and her desire to see Walter Lee's dreams fulfilled. Meanwhile, Walter's sassy younger sister, Beneatha, is satisfied that part of the money will send her to med school.
Penumbra's current rendering, directed by Lou Bellamy, makes these characters both symbolic figures and warm-blooded humans. As "Harlem" illustrates different ways disappointment affects people, so Raisin shows how what Hansberry calls "spirit" is affected by personality and circumstance. Take the woefully self-centered Walter Lee, who's given a thoughtful, continually evolving performance by David Alan Anderson. By blaming the world for all his failures, he's handed over his sense of self-determination, saving racists the trouble. Furthermore, he's bought into the money worship of the larger culture. His mother says that in her day, freedom was enough; life wasn't about money. Walter's answer, that of a pragmatist, is that freedom was always about money. Hansberry shows how that view is true, but only so far; beyond a point, it's spiritual death.
Walter Lee's sister, Beneatha, equals him in spirit (which is no doubt of the "exploding" variety), but channels it more positively. Aimee Bryant does a lovely, occasionally over-the-top job as this young woman, whose African suitor has named her "One for whom food is not enough." She's mouthy, flighty, unwilling to defer her dream of becoming an M.D. But her mother, who's spent a life just keeping body and soul intact, is bewildered by her children's ambitions. At the same time she knows that to teach them responsibility, she must show that she trusts them: The world certainly won't. As Lena, Edna D. Duncan speaks every line as if she'd written it herself. Tonia Jackson is also excellent as Walter Lee's weary wife, Ruth. Hansberry recognized the ways African-American women are triply bound, ringing a feminist/womanist bell at an impressively early date. Ruth is overworked, underpaid, and completely without clout in the outside world, and her role at home isn't that much different--except that she also must listen to Walter Lee rail against her for tying him down.
So where does all this lead us? Beneatha's African friend wants her to return to Nigeria with him. But instead of dangling repatriation like a happily-ever-after Band-Aid, Hansberry drives right into its complexities: Revolution hardly equals freedom. What would it mean to be oppressed by one's own people? Likewise, the family's plan to move out of the ghetto and into a home is only the next step, not a solution to their worries.
Time has proven that Hansberry's suspicions with regard to both Nigeria and America were laser-accurate. She was revolutionary herself in some ways, if not militant. Hers was a complicated radicalism, at once realistic and visionary. It's the wisdom of an old soul who knows that riots usually end up destroying black neighborhoods, not white, and that all over the world, it's usually the women who must rebuild what men tear down. Because in Hansberry's heart there's no question: The dream may have been deferred, but it's never going to die. CP
A Raisin in the Sun plays through February 23 at Penumbra Theatre; call 224-3180.