“A Raisin in the Sun” was the first play by an African American woman to be staged on Broadway. This play was written by Lorraine Hansberry fifty-four years ago and its plot borrows heavily from her own experiences.
This play addresses the hottest topics of the 1950s including white skin privilege, gender roles, patriarchy/matriarchy, and poverty. This thematic content is one of the reasons why this production has continued to garner critical success. The play also acts as a teaching aid to the later day “hip hop” generation.
The story’s plot revolves around the Younger family. The family is living in a shabby South Chicago apartment and each of the family’s members is on the pursuit of his/her dream. There is Travis who dreams of opening a big business that will change his life.
His wife Ruth takes care of their little boy while Travis spends most of his time either complaining or dreaming. Beneatha is his sister who dreams of becoming a doctor although everybody else thinks she has better chances of getting into nursing.
The matriarch of the Younger family is Lena whose only goal is to provide her family with a foundational home. Lena’s husband Walter is recently deceased leaving behind a substantial life insurance check. All the family members’ dreams are pegged on this ten thousand- dollar check.
Lena is the one who has the responsibility of adjudicating over this insurance money. All the players in “A Raisin in the Sun” are African Americans except for Karl Lindner the neighborhood association chairman. Beneatha attracts two suitors in the characters of Joseph Asagai and George Murchison.
The family’s life is turned upside down when Lena decides to use the insurance money to purchase a house in an all-white neighborhood.
When this play first debuted in 1959, it had a significant political message. However, half a century later this political message is no longer a hot topic. The recent staging of this play under director Bill Duke took on a new dimension by reminding the audience about the black culture.
The first producer of this play had a hard time raising funds for its production because most people felt that only African Americans were able to relate to the themes of the play.
However, when the play finally made it to Broadway it was able to attract sizeable crowds from all races. Duke fashioned his production in such a manner that the play was able to maintain this original momentum.
The play features very prolific actors whose expertise is a major attraction during the staging of this play. The actors give a stage presence that cannot be compared with any other visual media. Dan Glover who plays the character of Walter Lee the patriarch of this family delivers a convincingly isolated performance.
As an experienced actor, Glover shows a strong sense of direction. In the scene where he gets down on his knees to beg for money, he is able to capture the audience with his portrayal of immense tension. Glover is charged with portraying a hardworking man whose progress is bound by the chains of racism.
The play is based on how the situation used to be in 1950s. Therefore, Glover has to convey to the modern audience what it meant to be a man in those times. Glover does not disappoint because he is able to depict what manhood meant in relation to his family and to the rest of the world.
His performance is as rhythmic as a heartbeat. No one in the audience wants to miss any part of his crowning portrayal of the resilient Walter Lee.
Lena, played by Ester Rolle is the play’s centre of attention. Rolle’s character interacts with almost every other character in this production. This makes the level of her performance much more noticeable than the rest of the players. A flaw in her performance is likely to have an irreparable effect on the entire production.
Being the seasoned actress that she is, Rolle takes her character in a stride. She is able to avoid an “over portrayal” of Lena. She is also able to supply the audience with a very even performance. Rolle’s performance is not meant to be the spice of the play.
She realizes this and leaves the spicing to the rest of her cast mates. During the beginning of the play, Lena is more of a matriarch but in the second and third acts, she is supposed to be more of a patriarch. However, Rolle is not able to strengthen this transition.
Her performance as the chief decision maker of the Younger family could be more solid. In the scene where she is urging her son to be more like his father, there are glimpses of a more solid performance.
Nevertheless, Rolle’s performance attracts more attention given that the other actors who have taken up this role have been excellent. Phylicia Rashad for instance won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Lena in the 2004 production.
Beneatha is an opinionated young girl whose sole goal is to make it to medical school. The fact that there is money coming to the family makes her believe that her dream is about to come true. Kim Yancey is the beautiful actress who is supposed to make the audience connect with Beneatha.
During the 1950s, youth always ranked above beauty for African-American women. This trend has however changed and this makes the director’s job more complicated. It was upon Duke and Yancey to make sure that they connected with the present day audience.
To achieve this connection Yancey’s is forced to add more “sex appeal” to Beneatha’s character. This was not something that the playwright intended. Although by doing so she is able bring about a more relatable Beneatha, her performance seems to undermine classic theatre.
This performance also contradicts her interactions with Asagai and Murchison. The two are obviously drawn to her beauty but their interactions are mostly intellectual. This ensemble is a bit confusing for the audience.
Beneatha’s brother Travis (played by Kimble Joyner) is essentially the center of conflict in this play. The fact that Travis is always frustrated does not make Joyner’s work easier. His interaction with other players is supposed to be very technical. His wife Ruth played by Starletta bears the blunt on his inadequacies.
Even when bestowed upon the task of delivering conflict on stage, Joyner is able to keep the audience interested. His character is also the subject of several themes in this play. When he is on stage, part of the audience is likely to wander away in thought.
Joyner steps up to this challenge by ensuring that he delivers jolts of exalted performance every now and then. By the end of the play, the audience has already learnt to pay attention to Travis. His interactions with his son also provide the audience with a rare insight into his paternal abilities.
The most outstanding performance in this production is by Glover and Rolle. Glover is able to jam-start the play with his opening performance while Rolle maintains the play’s tempo from start to finish. The only non African American performer in this play is John Fiedler.
Fiedler plays the role of the scheming neighborhood association head Karl Lindner. Fiedler is able to supply a lot of humor to the stage. This makes him the standout performer in the play.
Given the nature of all the other characters’ challenges, his goals seem a bit ridiculous. This gives him the ammunition for bringing comic relief to the stage.
The director of this play is forced to work with a relatively small stage. Most modern productions feature magnificent stages that accommodate an upward of three different scenes. However, the design requirements of this play put this stage to maximum use.
This play requires an intimate stage that is representative of the Younger family’s situation. Freddie Slavin’s set announces the Younger family’s situation to the audience the moment the curtains go up. The play takes part in only one scene at the family’s apartment.
Slavin’s set design symbolizes the heartlessness of Karl’s kind and the hopeless of Lena’s kind. Even when Karl enters the Younger’s humble apartment, he tries not to appear scornful with his offer to the family. The set designer also upholds simplicity in his design in line with the play’s motif.
By the time the performance reaches the middle, the audience is already familiar with the Younger’s living conditions. Because the set design does not change, the props in the stage almost become additional actors. From the old wallpaper to the tray table, all these props are already too familiar by the end of the second act.
The costume designer of this play must have had an easy job. This is because most of the audience in the theatre only knows the 1950s through television. All the costume designer had to do was to avoid being too “radical” fashion wise and the audience was easily pleased.
The costumes are also evenly balanced for all characters except for Walter who is supposed to be ghostly. The costume designer ensured that Walter’s costume stood out from the rest of the characters as well as the set design. To achieve this, the designer used yellow as the contrast color.
This tactic seems to work as it highlights the patriarch’s role as well as his status. However, Beneatha and Travis’ costumes could have been more relevant in terms of their generation gap. The make-up artists had their work cut out for them in this production.
This is because the play needed a more weathered Walter Younger. In addition, there is a clear difference in energy levels between Ruth and Beneatha’s make-ups.
The stage lighting is not as enhanced as the ones used in most of the modern day performances. However, this lighting may have been a complement of the play’s mood. The simple nature of the Younger’s apartment would also be compromised by elaborate stage lighting.
The blues music between acts also complimented the play and its classic nature. There are very little sound effects in this play and the few that are used seem unnecessary. The play could flow more naturally if no sound effects are used.
The hand of director Bill Duke in this play is manifested in the cast, the natural performances, and the transitions. Duke’s directing style is classic to say the least. The director is also careful not to erode the issues that Hansberry wanted to convey.
Moreover, Duke’s directing is able to maintain a fresh feel on the issues exemplified by the Younger family. The directing in this play also ensures that each cast member’s stage presence is felt across the audience. It seems like Duke’s goal was to focus more on each actor’s contribution and ensure a simple appraisal.
This would explain the simplicity in lighting and set design. The hallmark of this drama is the Younger family’s resilience and intimacy. Every director tries to accomplish this in his/her unique way. Duke seems to have chosen simplicity as his means of illuminating the exemplary Younger family.
The dramatic exploits in “A Raisin in the Sun” are well represented by the production’s ardent cast. Every performer does his/her part and the combined performance results into a great production. The excellence of the cast is best explained through Glover and Rolle’s performances.
The simplicity of the set and costume designs helps the audience focus on the important aspects of the play. With the expert direction of Bill Duke, “A Raisin in the Sun” is one of the best productions this season.