Presented by Huntington Theatre Company
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Review by Noelani Kamelamela
(Boston) Theatre with an African American focus owes its considerable roots to Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which debuted on Broadway in 1959. The Younger family’s struggle against external limitations has been the inspiration behind the musical Raisin (1973) as well as the play Clybourne Park (now at Speakeasy Stage Co, running through March 30th) to name a few. The racial oppression that existed then hid behind God and country, and now decades after the gains of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s has the power to still do so, to hold prisoner hard-working men and women and to frame that incarceration as well deserved. The Huntington’s current production is definitely not a re-staging of their 1995 show, and makes a bold statement about resistance to the status quo and the courage it takes to insist on fair treatment in any era.
Tommy’s direction molded what could be performed as a self-congratulatory liberal mime into a serious piece centered on family. Moments of humor peppered the darkness with enough light to illuminate the tight ensemble at work. Kimberly Scott’s matriarch Lena in particular is a commanding presence whether silently gazing into the past, steadily dreaming of a future beyond the apartment’s walls, or loudly mourning her never truly absent dead husband. LeRoy McClain’s breakdowns create tension and discomfort, appropriate to the jive turkey elements of Walter Lee, Lena’s son . Timing and interplay within the ensemble was central overall, especially on a rotating set.
Clint Ramos’ fragile matchstick apartment rotated only as necessary to the plot or to capture the ambiance of the moment. The impression is that of theatre in the round, an island lacking outer walls open to the whitewash of visible lighting elements framing and seemingly trapping the characters in their tiny world. Naked wings and naked sky make for a set dominated by the blank areas of stage forcing the audience to remain outside of the action while able to absorb more than would be allowed in a conventional design. Props and costumes convincingly conveyed the period. Wonderfully chosen transitional music, unique to the African diaspora in America, added extra dimensions. Forced to look head-on at ghosts from the past never formally laid to rest, an unsettled audience is given the option to question prevailing American views on sex, race, class and social mobility in the Younger’s zeitgeist as well as ours.
The soul of a man, the soul of a family, the soul of a country in a certain time and place: these things are never truly separable. This is a modern and sophisticated treatment of Hansberry’s beloved play. A call for dignity in the face of dismissal under the guise of neighborly concern, it is resonant in light of the recent financial collapse as well as sequestration, which is slated to disproportionately affect Americans of color. Lorraine Hansberry’s legacy, her words as spoken on this stage at this time, remind us to draw not a circle, but a line from the past to the future and step by step put our heads up and go forward.
*”Whole Lotta Sunlight” from Raisin. Songs by Judd Woldin and Robert Brittan, and book by Robert Nemiroff (Hansberry’s former husband) and Charlotte Zaltzberg . A musical based on A Raisin in the Sun.