’Raisin in the Sun’ Rocks Orinda
If you’re unfamiliar with Lorraine Hansberry’s work, Cal Shakes’ revival of her innovative play "A Raisin in the Sun" (1959) will shake you out of your woeful stupor. Or find the 1961 film in a library, starring a luminescent Sidney Poitier and incandescent Diana Sands in the original Broadway cast. Or read it, as one reads the Bard before seeing "Hamlet." Yes, the play is rich enough to repay study. Step lively, though, because Raisin previewed in the Orinda hills on May 21, and closes June 15. Remember to dress warmly, and bring a thermos.
Raisin’s title is a quote from Langston Hughes’ poem "Harlem," which asks, "What happens to a dream deferred?" Suddenly rewarded $10,000 life insurance money when the hard-working pater familias dies, an African-American family in a tiny Chicago apartment squabbles over what to buy. His widow, Mama, dreams of a mortgage plus higher education for daughter Beneatha, but son Walter naively champions a get-rich-quick scheme. He’s got to do something, with a wife, son, and baby on the way. Before the final choice is made, these spirited characters light up the stage with their wit, temper, tiredness, insights, jokes, rivalries, mistakes, frustrations, and love. Meanwhile, without your realizing what she’s up to exactly, Hansberry not only skewers social constructs of race, gender, and class, but poetically paves the way out of a burdensome past into a challenging future.
"It is possible," wrote black gay literary activist-genius James Baldwin, "that Lorraine Hansberry’s plays attempt to say too much; but it is also exceedingly probable that they make so loud and uncomfortable a sound because of the surrounding silence." Baldwin’s point, that U.S. theater had stopped examining political hot potatoes 50 years ago, is equally true today. Since 9/11, arguably, the silence has become eardrum-implosive. So thank you, Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone, for selecting, as your non-Shakespeare play this summer season, a play by a black lesbian-feminist genius whose courage to critique the system is a huge inspirational boost to a gutless aesthetic atmosphere.
If you think I’m slinging the word "genius" too freely, you either don’t know their work, or don’t realize the breadth of their philosophies. Hansberry and Baldwin, who were friends, used their black-and-queer outsider lens to focus on the Big Picture, which they critiqued with compassion. Besides, they’re damned fine writers, meaning they dipped visionary pens into blood-pulsing hearts. The skill with which Hansberry presents the African-American longing for home ownership, even in the great white lap of suburbia, utterly disarms and deconstructs any latent racism in a white theatergoer. This skill, to present blacks as people wanting what everybody wants, seduced Broadway 60 years ago and again last month. Even that lovable old gadfly Henry Louis Gates, Jr. blogged about it.
Director Patricia McGregor spoke on the phone before facing her first day of tech (theatrical lingo for taking the intimate work of the rehearsal space onto the stage where the play’s to be performed). Having read "Raisin" in high school with reverence, and again in college, the Harlem resident said she was "shocked by the play’s vibrancy and relevance" when she picked it up again in response to Moscone’s offer. Raisin’s core question, she says, still resounds: "What is it to pursue this American Dream in the face of obstacles?"
Taking a homebuyer’s class in Harlem, where brokers will not even show to certain clients, McGregor said they devised the counter-strategy of sending someone of a different socio-economic profile to see the property. "Fifty years later," she mused, "we’ve made progress, but we’ve also slipped back."
Rehearsing in Berkeley, she and her nearly all-black cast were aware that "10 minutes one way, there was an exclusively black neighborhood, and 10 minutes in the other direction, an exclusively white neighborhood." She stressed that Hansberry has the grace to treat this sorry truth with "so much humor. This is a serious play about serious issues, but humor is a survival tactic. Laughter humanizes the journey."
The character of Beneatha is routinely described as autobiographical, being composed of "elements of Hansberry." McGregor lists "her struggle to articulate her choices, her desire to express herself, her desire not to get married, not to see men as the answer. The knight in shining armor coming to rescue you? She didn’t buy into that. At the end of the play, it’s intentionally left ambiguous what path she takes." And yet.
Hansberry, dead of cancer at 34, was a lesbian. That was a civil rights battle too far in 1959. Today, we needn’t be so bashful. Because Beneatha’s giddy sense of freedom only makes sense when you realize she has no need for men -- except as brothers, friends, colleagues. Hail Beneatha, a willful, funny, quirky lesbian sheroe of stage and screen.
Through June 15 at Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda. Tickets ($20-$72): (510) 548-9666, calshakes.org.