A Raisin in the Sun takes on a complex subject matter that’s not easy to discuss, unless you lace your discussion of it with generic, PC statements on race and oppression. I think this is why so much focus is put on the segregation issue that comes up late in the play, when our protagonists, the Younger family, are asked not to move into the house they bought in an all-white Chicago neighborhood. While there’s some historical importance here (most interestingly, how they were priced out of the black neighborhoods), it’s a minor point to the play.
It’s Walter’s–I’m not sure what to call it–that the play rests on. His neurosis, pain, hubris, anger, weakness, and/or discontent. Everything else is tangential to this; the optimistic lecture on the slow progress of change delivered by Joseph Asagai, the African student; the quick dip into residential segregation; and the jokes at the expense of the Black nationalism movement. The segregation issue only comes up to push Walter past morality and sanity, where he’s willing to swallow racism and prejudice for money. And money is not just money here. He’s trying to recoup his father’s life insurance payout…which he lost…by handing it over to a buddy, in cash, so that he could bribe people for a liquor store license…including the portion his mother set aside for his sister’s tuition but gave to him so he would feel more like a man.
Playwright Lorraine Hansberry lets Walter be her hero in the end, but I think that’s just to give the show a happy ending. Pieces of the play do have a sitcom quality. What makes the play worthwhile is the fact that it’s not easy to align oneself with Walter. He lacks the nobility our fiction likes to endow onto the oppressed. He’s both our villain and our protagonist. And his problems are as complex as our relationship to him. And that’s why the character is so powerful, especially in the hands of LeRoy McClain, whose performance at the Huntington is vastly superior to Sidney Poitier’s in the 1961 film (and certainly better than P Diddy’s). McClain sustains so much emotional intensity, one would think he’d pass out during the curtain call.
I think Walter’s anger is of the time of the play’s 1930s setting, but it comes off as being highly relevant. While Walter’s a cynic, it’s not difficult to make the connection between him and the 99%/Occupy movements. Or just that violent lake of magma beneath America’s seemingly sedimentary surface at any given time in the 20th century. This is the real history of racism and greed and economic and social opression in America, where it’s victims are not noble, deserving martyrs, but weak humans.
Clint Ramos has put together one of those massive, rotating sets that are becoming a mannerism of the Huntington and Walter’s anger is mirrored by blaring free jazz interludes. The production opens with a shout out to Chicago geography–a hip hop track with lots of references to streets and corners. Director Liesl Tommy has smartly undercut Walter’s intensity with comic relief from Walter’s sister Beneatha (Keona Welch). Her girlish promise, wisecracks, and back & forth with two suitors provide an endearing foil to Walter’s sad, fated desperation. The character of Ruth (Ashley Younger), Walter’s wife, takes a back seat here. It could be enhanced, but she’s not fully fleshed out in the text to begin with. She’s so forgiving of Walter and almost awkwardly silent at some of the play’s tensest moments that we wonder who she really is.