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Plainspoken and funny, angry and undeceived, anything but perfect in the African Continuum Theatre Company’s new production and deeply moving nonetheless, A Raisin in the Sun will wring you out and lift you up; I walked out of the Atlas Performing Arts Center full of joy at the gift of its humanity, full of grief at the pain we human animals insist on making for one another, and wistful that Lorraine Hansberry didn’t live to write a shelf full of plays as handsome and honest.
But what a well-made play this one is. The dialogue lazes and snaps and tumbles, easy and natural; the laughs are boisterous and plentiful, the characters a rich, satisfying bunch. And the story, about an African-American family wrangling over what to do with a $10,000 legacy in early-’50s Chicago, follows such a classic dramatic arc that its events will seem transparently inevitable once the last of the core players is introduced. The righteous, widowed matriarch, the iconoclast daughter aiming to be the family’s first college graduate, the chauffeur son dreaming dreams at once grander and more prosaic than his sister’s, his wife and son, who’d just like a little more room and a little more light than their grim apartment allows—they’ll each get their shot at grasping one brass ring or another. And then life, and the American way of living it, will slap each one down in precisely the fashion you’ll expect as soon as those dreams get verbalized.
This is no bad thing, by the way: We know Oedipus will come to a bad end, too, but it’s one of the measures of a great tragedy that watching a foregone conclusion can still be gripping. And in any case one of the greatnesses of Hansberry’s tale is the way it transcends and transmutes its intimately epic tragedies: Bad things happen to good people, and to weak ones and foolish ones and proud ones too, but this playwright and her characters don’t stop long to wallow. They grieve, yes—hugely, and you suffer with them—and then the play gathers itself, recognizing that life has been an unjust, unfair struggle since brother first killed brother. It squares its shoulders, shoves its despair ruthlessly back down its own throat, and soldiers grimly, thrillingly on.
There’s a staggering nobility in that soldiering, and it’s not merely the nobility of an oppressed class insisting on its right to live and dream. What Hansberry taps so eloquently in Raisin is a bedrock human will to rise, to do more than subsist, to find the sun and to flower in its warmth. But if a substantial part of the play’s power is in its graceful articulation of an impressively broad set of verities, the balance of it comes from the specifics in which it speaks of them. The daughter’s rejection of a prosperous assimilationist suitor in favor of a Nigerian intellectual and an African-anchored identity; the son’s gnawing hunger for a chance to prove himself and provide for his family, his fettered restlessness at living under a feminine authority that both nurtures and castrates; the betrayal of trust that amounts to a kind of black-on-black violence as fatal to the spirit as later, more physical forms would be to the body. This play opened on Broadway in 1959, let’s remember, a prescient theatrical catalog of themes that would come to dominate the African-American consciousness in the second half of the 20th century.
Jennifer L. Nelson’s staging isn’t the most perfectly modulated thing you’ll see on a local stage this season, though in its way it’s nearly as handsome as the play. Timothy J. Jones’ set, to start with, makes a convincingly worn frame for a drama so thoroughly domestic that the kitchen sink gets literally (and repeatedly) employed by pretty much everybody involved; it’s decidedly unglamorous but diligently tended, as a place lived in by proud but not prosperous people always is. Reggie Ray’s costumes are a whit less successful: The designer’s undoubted flair expresses itself here in suits and capes and dresses so flatteringly chic that given the family’s constant money worries, you’re left wondering whether Hansberry’s women are extraordinarily gifted seamstresses and bargain hunters or just irresponsible. (Either way, it’s unnecessarily distracting.)
More substantial distractions pepper the performances, from the presentational, self-conscious air of Audra Alise Polk’s Beneatha (the would-be doctor) to the lint-picking fussiness of Brandon White’s George (the white-shoed prepster) to the neutered, clownish nervousness of John Dow’s Karl (the insulting interloper of an emissary from the all-white neighborhood the Younger family plans to move into). Nelson might have done more to tamp those idiosyncrasies down, or she might have done more to integrate them so they feel like they all belong in the same play; on Sunday, at least, they seemed like selfish, showy choices rather than considered character traits.
At least there’s Jewell Robinson’s Lena Younger, whose steely sense of matriarchal authority feels downright bracing (I had a grandmother like that, and they are fearsome beings) and whose moral compass seems forgivingly true (I had a grandmother like that, too, and I’ve no more grateful memory). And there’s Deirdre LaWan Starnes’ weary, drawn Ruth, who’s fought too long and too often to reconcile her husband’s dreams with their family’s day-to-day realities and who remains a warrior at her core.
Outside the family circle, there’s Dallas Darttanian Miller, who makes a rousing aria out of the immensely compassionate this-world-was-ever-thus speech Hansberry puts in the mouth of Beneatha’s West African suitor—another marvelously prescient speech, that one, and one had as much hope in it in 1959 as it has grim post-colonial irony now. It drew cheers on Sunday, and it deserved them.
And of course there’s Walter Lee: This is his story, at the last, the chronicle of his coming into manhood, of his standing up when the only alternative is going forever to his knees, and Jefferson A. Russell tells it with what turns out to be a surprising expressiveness. The quietness of his rage, as he moves one more time to go out the door when the closeness of that apartment threatens to make him go mad or go after one of the people he loves, is heartbreaking. And the ebullience in his happiness when things seem to be going right helps fuel a beautiful sequence, all love and roses, between him and Starnes.
Fineness and flaws and all, it’s a stirring thing, what Nelson has put together for her final season as African Continuum’s artistic director. It wasn’t until it was done that I remembered where I was, in a handsome new black-box theater in an extraordinary new multivenue arts center on an unlovely stretch of street in a neighborhood still defiantly wearing the scars and bruises from an explosion of rage and frustration four decades gone. I thought about that as I walked away, and I thought about what Lorraine Hansberry had just had to say on the subject, and in the privacy of my car the sobs came, and I welcomed them like rain.