Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, aptly titled referencing the Langston Hughes’ poem, “A Dream Deferred,” is enjoying its fourth major New York City revival. It debuted on Broadway to great acclaim in 1959 and followed with two other Broadway showings in 2004 and in 2014 with Denzel Washington. Now at the Public Theater extended again until November 20th, director Robert O’Hara and the cast, led by Tonya Pinkins, prove that Raisin in the Sun is an immutable masterpiece. Its themes of discrimination, injustice, greed, family unity and love encompass all human experience.
The heartfelt, moving, vibrant and electric production, which lives from moment to moment in joy, humor, sorrow, fury, wisdom and dignity, incisively honors Hansberry’s work in its showcase of Black Americans in this triumphant production. However, more than other revivals of Raisin in the Sun, this cast, creative team and director convert Hansberry’s work to the realm of timelessness. The production is an inspiration, an event of humanity which is incredibly relatable to all races, creeds and colors.
In its particularity the play is about the seminal Black experience in America during a shifting, revolutionary time of great economic and human rights change for African Americans in the 1950s. However, Hansberry’s thematic vision stretches beyond the microcosm. This magnificent play encapsulates the macrocosm with Hansberry’s genius characterizations, conflicts and themes in transcendent writing. For at its heart the play is universal in revealing the human desire to achieve, to evolve, to be empowered, to give voice to one’s soul cries for recognition, for equity, for prosperity.
Made into two films, a musical, radio plays, a TV film and inspiring a cycle of three plays (Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park and Beneatha’s Place), Hansberry’s work is a classic not to be taken on lightly. However, Robert O’Hara, the cast and the creative team understand the great moment of Hansberry’s work for us today. With their incredible production at the Public, which opened October 25th, they have elucidated the heartbreak, fury, joy and beauty of Black experience as they portray how the Younger family struggles to find their place in a culture of racial oppression, stupidity and cruelty.
O’Hara’s version has additions which enhance the symbolism of Hansberry’s themes. Walter Lee Sr.’s presence materializes as a ghost (Calvin Dutton), who inhabits Lena’s thoughts and remembrances. His unobtrusive presence symbolizes Lena’s heart and love for their family. The insurance check represents the sum total of how the world credits Walter Lee Sr.’s life, an irony because for Lena, no amount of money is an equivalent to the worth of her husband. In fact the insurance check that rattles the household and puts stars in the eyes of Walter Lee Jr. (the amazing Francois Battiste), is blood money to Lena, a blasphemy that she doesn’t want to even touch when the mailman delivers it and she has Travis (Toussant Battiste), read off the number of zeros.
O’Hara’s staging is unique and vital, adding nuance and clarity to Hansberry’s dialogue and characterizations. Mindful of the play’s high-points, he stages the characters priming our focus to receive the full benefit of Hansberry’s message. This is especially so for Walter Lee’s inflammatory and raging monologue about “the takers and the taken,” in previous productions delivered to Lena, Beneatha (Paige Gilbert) and Ruth (Mandi Masden). In O’Hara’s version, Battiste’s Walter Lee stands in a spotlight and delivers the speech to the audience. It is mindblowing, reverential, brilliant, confrontational. More about this staging later.
The performances are authentic and spot-on fabulous. O’Hara’s direction is so pointed and “in-your-face,” the audience is invited to stand in the shoes of the Younger family, watching their trials with empathy. We feel for Masden’s Ruth when Lena confronts her about putting money down for an abortion. Her sobs of desperation at being driven to this because they can’t afford a child recall the past and now Republican states in the present. Considering the impact of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, as a throwback to Ruth Younger’s seeking an illegal abortion, this moment in the play breaks one’s heart. Masden inhabits the character with somber beauty and layered emotion. When she must pull out the stops, sobbing her hopeless despair to Lena, she is spot-on believable.
Likewise, as Gilbert’s Beneatha decides between two men and carps and riffs on brother Walter Lee, we understand she is caught between the old and the new. She represents transformation and is on the cusp of the new feminism. Accepting African influences prompted by her relationship with Joseph Asagai (the excellent John Clay III), she vies between being an assimilated Black woman for the sake of George Murchison (Mister Fitzgerald), and moving to embrace her ancestry. As the character of Beneath is the vehicle Hansberry provides with humor, Gilbert fine tunes her performance and is funny organically without pushing for laughs.
The ensemble work is seamless, showing prodigious effort as the actors live onstage. Thus, the audience cannot help but love and cheer on the family against Mr. Lindner (the excellent Jesse Pennington who reminded me of a quiet, quirky Klansman from the South, minus a Southern accent). Lindner’s assault on their dignity and chilling comment after he comes back a second time then says goodbye, in addition to his pejorative patting of Walter Lee on the shoulder as he leaves, combines all the self-satisfaction of one appointed to take a “message,” to the good “colored” folk to warn them away.
Most importantly, we grieve with them over the tragedy of Walter Lee (the incredible Francois Battiste), when his “friend” Willie absconds with the money Lena tells Walter to put in the bank. The tragedy is heightened by Tonya Pinkins’ fabulous performance as she cries out to the Lord to give her strength.
As Lena, Pinkins’ heaving call to the Lord is one for the ages. It is a dignified primal utterance which takes everything out of her, after which her hand shakes til the end of the play, for most probably, she suffered a mini stroke. In her fervency not to smash Walter Lee over the head, which he justly deserves, Lena must turn to God for help. Only He can give her the anointed love and patience to see her way through this family tragedy which threatens to swallow up her hope of moving from the “rattrap” ghetto apartment to Clybourne Park’s white neighborhood. Pinkins is riveting, her authenticity just stunning. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Walter Lee’s frantic action losing the insurance money, some of which is supposed to go for Beneatha’s schooling, is a bridge too far for Lena. It is no surprise in the next scene where Walter Lee confronts himself and “lays it out on the line” to explain that the culture has broken apart humanity into the takers and the taken, that a discouraged Lena questions going to Clybourne Park. Disappointed and devastated, she condemns herself for stretching out to want something better for her family. Once again Pinkins’ captures the ethos of Lena’s majesty and sorrow with perfection.
As Walter Lee, Francois Battiste seethes just below the boiling point as he builds to an emotional explosion when he realizes Willie has scammed him and Bobo. His is another stunner of a performance. Walter Lee’s abject desperation to become rich eats him alive and destroys his wisdom and circumspection, something which Lena cannot understand about her children’s generation. She notes they have forgotten how far their parents have come to achieve freedom. Pinkins’ Lena reminds her children to be satisfied with the strides their family has made. However, they ignore her wisdom and must learn through experience, a fact which every generation goes through, as Hansberry subtly suggests.
However, the bitter lesson Willie teaches Walter Lee is too heavy to bear. He has been “taken” by a black “friend,” who understands economic inequity born of white oppression, yet sticks it to another black man, exploiting “the opportunity.” Willie is as desperate as Walter Lee, perhaps more so because it forces him to steal demeaning himself and Walter Lee. They have accepted the corrupt white values, Hansberry suggests, and what they have reaped is near emotional annihilation. Willie’s betrayal symbolizes the culmination of every obstacle the family has been made to endure, including Walter Lee Sr.’s death, all thrown back in their faces by Walter Lee’s desperate act of trusting him. With superbly symbolic staging O’Hara has the family stand in the center of their living room, clinging to Lena at this nadir of their lives, as they look into the abyss, the sacrificial money gone.
It is Lena who must sustain them, but to do so, she drains herself dry of life, following in the footsteps of her husband. And the heaving event is so great, she is lamed after it. Throughout, Lena shows ambivalence about the $10,000 check that Walter Lee puts his faith in to change his life. She recalls that Walter Lee Sr. (Calvin Dutton appears at her remembrance), was drained of life trying to make his way through the work load of a low paying job that barely helped them get by. The money cannot replace the value of her husband and the love she has for him. The loss of most of it is a double slap in her face.
Perhaps the most brilliant of O’Hara’s staging occurs with Walter Lee’s speech after he acknowledges Willie has betrayed him. O’Hara has Walter Lee stand in a spotlight downstage to address the audience with a Raisin in the Sun playbill in hand, as he claims he is going to put on a show. Though he is talking about groveling to Lindner, as he receives the payoff to demean himself and not move in to the white neighborhood, he also is referring to the white audience in the theater and beyond its walls.
“The man” which stands for the patriarchy, the corporates and billionaires who demand $two trillion dollar tax cuts of the politicos and expect the little people (everyone else), to pay for it and take up their slack, surely demands Walter Lee “grin and bear” his oppression. Will he decide to take the dirty money Lindner offers for the house, trading his dignity and identity for a corrupted value system? Or will he stand up to Lindner and move into a white neighborhood, breaking down over a century of discriminatory housing?
The speech, a tour de force by Battiste, is breathtaking. It is Hansberry at her most raw, and trenchant. That O’Hara has intuited that Battiste’s Walter Lee should say this standing as if a wild prophet speaking to the audience at the crossroads of his life is just brilliant. Emotionally hitting all the notes, Battiste’s Walter Lee is priming himself for the momentous decision. Does he have the courage to take a stand? Battiste pulls out all stops genuflecting and grinning in a groveling throwback to the days of slavery from which his ancestors came. He shows the family his toady show he will use on Lindner and provokes Beneatha to refer to him as a “toothless rat.”
O’Hara’s metaphorical staging draws us in. Is there one human being who has not experienced shame, feeling demeaned or belittled and who has not internalized it? As Battiste’s Walter Lee spills his guts to the audience, O’Hara offers the opportunity to be there with Walter Lee, to suffer with him, to “get” his terrible pain and perhaps live the moment with him in this cathartic high-point.
O’Hara’ direction and Pinkins’ performance strengthen our understanding of Walter Lee and Lena’s close relationship with his inclusion of Walter Lee Sr.’s ghost who appears when Lena discusses the travails her husband experienced that physically wore him down and killed him. In his stance and posture Dutton embodies the sweat, toil, tears and exhaustion ebbing out of Walter Lee Sr.’s life, as Lena recalls it.
Interestingly, O’Hara also has the ghost appear at the conclusion of the play when the family leaves for their new home. The ghost and Lena kiss, then she leaves and he sits on the sofa of the old apartment as Travis Younger (the wonderful Toussant Battiste), comes back to retrieve his lunch box. Travis stops and considers as Walter Lee Sr. stares out into the audience and we hear a grinding noise, like that of a huge wall being torn down. The movement in the sound symbolizes the breaking of the color bar, as the old apartment and Walter Lee Sr. retreat upstage into the distant past.
As old makes way for the new, the Younger’s Clybourne Park house emerges beautiful, white and shinning. An astounded Travis turns to look at the symbol of their advancement. However, ugly graffiti appears on the house as lights dim. Indeed, as Mr. Lindner warned, the Youngers will suffer abuse at the hands of their prejudiced white neighbors. It is an intimation of the future that is still unfolding today in the present.
There is so much more in this profound reworking of Hansberry’s play, rightly considered one of the best plays ever written. Kudos to the creative team that brings this work to glorious life. They include Clint Ramos (scenic design), Karen Perry (costume design), Alex Jainchill (lighting design), Elisheba Ittoop (sound design), Brittany Bland (video design), Will Pickens (sound system design), Nikiya Mathis (hair and wig design), Rickey Tripp (movement and musical staging), Teniece Divya Johnson (intimacy & fight director), Claire M. Kavanah (prop manager).
There, I’ve said enough. For tickets and times go to their website: https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2223/a-raisin-in-the-sun/
Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge, the 1965 debate of James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr. at the Cambridge Union, University of Cambridge, UK is receiving its New York Premiere at The Public Theater. You need to see this production presented by Elevator Repair Service (Gatz, The Sound and the Fury) for many reasons. First, it’s vitally important for us in this present moment to hear and understand Baldwin’s criticism about our nation from the perspective of an articulate novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, identified as one of the greatest Black writers of the Twentieth Century. The production, which captures the debate in its entirety, will also help you understand Baldwin’s realistic acknowledgement of American attitudes and sensibilities, many of these carryovers to our present society and divisive culture, whether we are loathe to admit it or not.
The unadorned, bare bones production highlights the arguments Baldwin and Buckley presented at Cambridge in response to the question, “Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” With a minimalist set, two desks, chairs, lamps staged with the audience on three sides at the Anspacher Theater, the evening replicates the words if not the tone, ethos or dynamic drama of Baldwin (Greig Sargeant) and Buckley (Ben Jalosa Williams) in their face-off.
It is a worthy triumph of ERS to re-imagine these two titans, one eloquently speaking for Black America, the other a conservative writer and National Review founder. The latter supported a slow walk of desegregation which Blacks must “be ready for,” and were “not yet ready for.” Baldwin’s and Buckley’s perspectives reflected national attitudes, especially after the legislative gains made for Blacks in 1954, 1964 and 1965 which Baldwin didn’t trust because the power structures of the South and North didn’t adequately enforce the laws. In viewing their comments now, as our nation experiences “in-your-face” racism and discrimination, that would overthrow all gains (revealed in striking down Roe vs. Wade and most of the 1965 Voting Rights Act) the concepts in the debate between Baldwin and Buckley are highly relevant and worthy of review.
The inherent drama of the debate, its electric personages, and the crisis of the time eludes the actors and the director. Indeed, perhaps the task is impossible without sufficient artistry, and imagination to suggest what once was, the frenetic and feverish times of the country that in 1965 saw the Watts riots, which Baldwin alludes to at the end of his speech.
When Baldwin and Buckley debated, America was still fighting segregation in the deep South, the effects of which Cambridge student Mr. Heycock (Gavin Price on Saturdays) discusses to introduce Baldwin’s arguments. He mentions statistics quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. when they conducted a protest supporting voting rights in Alabama. Heycock states, there were more Negroes in jail for protesting than on the voting rolls. He enumerates other statistics. These identified the extent to which Blacks had been excluded from the White society’s opportunities and their aspirations to achieve the American Dream: jobs with benefits, college educations, economic prosperity, home ownership and more.
As both Heycock and later Sargeant’s Baldwin make clear during their fact-laden presentations, in no way was the Black experience in America “separate but equal” to that of Whites. Their lives, their worlds, their perspectives, opportunities and approach to daily living was anything but equivalent.
Though this was especially so in the South, the quality of life disparities also were prevalent in Northern cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles. There, Blacks were shoveled into the projects branded as a Utopian “urban renewal.” Actually, there was no renewal, as Blacks were crowded into broken-down buildings and crime-ridden ghettos, where rats flourished and the garbage spilled over into the streets. All of these points, Sargeant’s Baldwin mentions, disputing that Blacks have an equal opportunity in achieving the “American Dream,” which is obtain by Whites at Black’s expense.
The debate is a historic call to remembrance and worthy as such, which is why it bears being watched on YouTube, after seeing the Public’s production, directed by John Collins. The YouTube video reveals the unmistakable ambience of Cambridge and the scholars and students present in their formality and sobriety, laughing at Baldwin’s wit and wisdom and sometimes laughing with ridicule at Buckley’s pompousness and stumbles into bigotry.
Indeed, what is absent from the Public Theater production is this sense of moment. Missing is the ambience of setting and the nature of the audience which played a role in relaying the importance of the Baldwin and Buckley debate. These two giants in their own right honored Cambridge with their presence and concern, conveying American voices and perspectives. The gravitas is lacking in the production and is a possible misstep. Though an announcement is made as to the setting, more should have been done to convey the place and time. With a minimum of dramatization, the production wasn’t as dynamic as it could have been.
Creatively conveying time and place was not the choice of ERS or director Collins. Thus, Baldwin & Budkley at Cambridge is uneven. In structure and format the production follows the original debate. The elements are modernized, costumes in modern dress, not the black bow tie and suit worn for the formal Cambridge debate.
Also, somewhat confusing is that Price’s Heycock acknowledges the Lanape Indigenous Tribe who owned the land the Public Theater rests on. Then immediately he segues into the original debate structure. Perhaps as is done with other productions at the Public, a voice over by Oskar Eustis honoring the Lanape would have been less confusing. The separation of the present America from the debate setting is needed so the audience might reflect on the history of the land. After a pause, the setting of Cambridge, 1965 could then be established.
When Heycock finishes his introduction, Cambridge student Mr. Burford (Christopher-Rashee Stevenson) introduces Buckley’s argument, that it is not true that “the American Dream has been achieved at the expense of the American Negro.” To refute this Mr. Burford points out that 35 Black millionaires have achieved the American Dream. This justification that Blacks have attained the dream and not at the expense of Blacks is an example of the convoluted logic that will follow in Buckley’s confused and misdirected arguments.
Burford’s belittling statement in ignoring the huge unequal and disproportionate number of the few wealthy Blacks to numerous wealthy Whites deserves laughter and ridicule. Interestingly, the audience at the Public didn’t respond, as bigoted as the comment was. Possibly the lack of context of time and place contributed to an absence of audience engagement with Burford’s obnoxious statement and at other times during the performance.
Identifying the number of Black millionaires, while ignoring the large percentage of Blacks who live in poverty, evidences the superficiality of Buckley’s arguments which follow Burford’s introduction. As Williams’ Buckley launches into his presentation, we understand that the reality that Baldwin just portrayed about the Black experience in America, will in no way enter in to Buckley’s discussion. Indeed, he dismisses and ignores Baldwin’s brilliant conceptualizations, something which Baldwin intuits that the White culture does to perpetuate the status quo. Throughout his presentation Buckley doesn’t acknowledge that White culture controls, creates and dictates the Black experience. In no way is Baldwin’s picture of reality confronted by Buckley in his disjointed and at times abstruse speech.
Buckley diverges from Baldwin’s statements so that he does not dispute that the American Dream exists at the expense of Black exploitation. He ignores Baldwin’s dense discussion that the American Dream by its very nature in the White culture’s understanding nullifies its existence if Blacks are to be a part of it. For the American Dream to exist, Baldwin suggests from the White perspective, Blacks must be excluded and given little opportunity to achieve it. Blacks can’t be a part because it necessitates exploitation of themselves. Baldwin’s point is that the dream only exists for Whites. Blacks are a part only in so far that they are at the bottom of the power structure, the foundation upon which Whites step up and rise, taking with them all the spoils, all the opportunities.
Sargeant’s Baldwin is wry and not as nuanced, expressive and dramatic as he might have been. On the other hand, Williams’ Buckley is vital, stirring and engaging. Clearly, in the Public Theater production, Buckley won. I found myself dropping out as Sargeant’s portrayal missed important beats. Williams’ sharp edginess and movements kept my interest. Conversely, Price’s Heycock was portrayed with vitality. Stevenson’s Burford was adequate.
Interestingly, after the debate Sargeant’s Baldwin sits with friend and playwright Lorraine Hansberry (Daphne Gaines). Their interchange reveals their close friendship. Unfortunately, the scene is too brief and should have delved deeper. At the very end, Sargeant takes off the mantle of Baldwin in his most authentic moment. He acknowledges the company’s own politically incorrect historic racism when ERS cast White actors to play Black roles in their early versions of The Sound and the Fury. To identify a past that we are still trying to become free of, even the most well meaning of us, seems counterproductive, guilty and fearful. I look forward to a time when theater moves beyond this stance which in itself is disingenuous and “protests too much.”
Clearly, at this time it is appropriate that the debate of Baldwin & Budkley at Cambridge be re-imagined. We are at a crossroads. This is not 1965. We are not in Cambridge, however, the ideas from our racist past that were entrenched, have been redeemed as useful and justifiable for us in the present. At no other time in history having attained what we thought was racial progress, have we been so duped by the residual racism that existed culturally into believing it was harmless. Its dangers have always been there and liberals have been blind to it despite warnings by Black and Brown critics.
Baldwin knew, he saw. The Black reality and White world were as clear as day. He understood that the White reality was convinced of its craven rightness to oppress and suppress Blacks to achieve White agendas at Black expense. Today, this horrific White reality is most visible in law enforcement abuse of Blacks, in the broken justice system that incarcerates Blacks disproportionately, in the exclusion of Blacks in corporate empires, in every institution that harbors systemic racism.
And the economic oppression is growing worse to include everyone except the .001%. These truths existed sub rosa for decades as the gap between the wealthy and everyone else widened. However, it took an egregious and criminally-minded opportunist in former president Donald Trump to justify and promote a resurgence of open hatreds branding the necessity of racist oppression, and authoritarianism ruling the underclasses, using media PR of lies and obfuscation.
For that final reason, Baldwin & Budkley at Cambridge is an extremely vital production which must be seen. For tickets go to their website: https://publictheater.org/