A Raisin in the Sun

Adila BarnesBy Philip Pearce

THE NEW PRODUCTION of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun by the UCSC African American Theater Arts Troupe offers some agreeable surprises.

Opening night at the university’s Second Stage started with a pep rally. Director Don Williams was on hand to work the aisles with hugs and greetings well before curtain time, at which point he led a sold-out house in coordinated cheers for a happy Friday evening at the theater. Was all this pre-production fun and frivolity a warm-up for an inflated, over-the-top approach to an American stage classic? I needn’t have worried. What followed was a clear and well-crafted ensemble performance of Hansberry’s famous script.

When it debuted in 1959, A Raisin in the Sun broke through racial and gender barriers as the first Broadway production written by an African American woman and directed by an African American man, Lloyd Richards. A year later I was in London for a memorable performance of Richards’ successful West End version. But all of that happened nearly sixty years ago. Seated in the Second Stage Theater last weekend, I wondered if this new Raisin would be a well-deserved backward look at an important piece of American stage history, significant in its day but dated in the brave new world of 2018. Again, Williams and his committed cast made it clear: these characters and events are still as fresh as last Friday’s rainfall.

It’s less heartening to realize also that, despite the civil rights struggles and victories of the 1960s, many of the racial attitudes depicted in this story of a black American family still resonate. Friday’s predominantly African American audience recognized that fact and reacted with comments and flutters of applause.

Featured in a half-page photo-bio halfway into the program was Adilah Barnes (pictured), an award-winning stage, film and television actress who graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1972. She returned to the campus in 2016 as keynote speaker for the African American Theater Arts Troupe’s 25th anniversary. The event set off in the minds of Williams and UCSC arts dean Susan Solt the idea of inviting Barnes back to play the central role of Lena Younger in this new production of Raisin.

In a poem called “Harlem,” Langston Hughes asks “What happens to a dream deferred?” and wonders, “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Lena Younger is the indomitable matriarch of three generations of a family who wonder if their dreams are drying up like Hughes’ sun-struck raisin. A guardian of family tradition, and a bastion against faltering family hopes, Lena holds the key to a better life in the form of ten thousand dollars she’s about to receive from a life insurance policy held by her late husband. Physically slighter and more compact than most of the women who have previously taken on the role, Barnes plays her less as a towering prophetic matriarch, more as a bustling and competent family leader whose quick insights and ready wisdom are laced with humor. She is deft with comedy moments like her stumbling efforts to relate to a visitor from Nigeria. Her dream is to use the life insurance money to buy a real house to replace the Youngers’ cramped and squalid ghetto apartment on Chicago’s South Side.

Firstborn Walter Lee has different ideas. Tied to poverty and a thankless chauffeuring job, he boils with rage at the family’s refusal to give wholehearted support to his get-rich-quick rescue schemes. Lena’s insurance money seems to offer the breakthrough he longs for, but she has stubborn religious scruples about a plan he and two friends have cooked up for a lucrative liquor store franchise. Jokaelle Porter is resourceful and energetic in a role created on stage and screen by Sidney Poitier. His agonized tirade pitting his own soaring desires against his wife’s stolid refrain of “Eat your eggs and go to work” is a high point of Act 1. Porter speaks powerfully and knows how to use his body and hands with a precision that could be profitably studied by the younger male performers, who bring appealing sincerity and energy to supporting roles but tend to use gestures that lack focus and meaning.

Walter Lee’s reluctant wife is Ruth, played with sensitivity and force by third-year theater arts student Jazmine Logan. Wearily resigned to a status quo of ghetto values and family routine, she can only focus on keeping pre-teen son Travis (engagingly acted by seventh-grader Abeka Essel) out of trouble and Walter Lee from discovering that she’s pregnant with a second child her sister Beneatha speculates will probably have to sleep on the roof.

Beneatha’s dream is to qualify as a doctor. She’s a freewheeling student agnostic who, with lofty sophomoric abandon, scorns her brother’s corny swing dancing with his wife and her mother’s bedrock Christianity, until Lena cows her into acknowledging that “In my mother’s house, there is always God.” It’s a winning comedy/drama role and fourth-year theater arts major Erika Meilleur plays it to the hilt. Spurred on by Abiel Russom as her African college classmate Joseph Asagai, she throws herself hell for leather into a regimen of Nigerian costuming, choreography and culture, until, like her ever-childlike brother, she gains maturity and wisdom when economic tragedy and racial prejudice threaten to dry up the Youngers’ collective dream of a better life.

Williams directs with a nice blend of flexibility and control. He shows a relaxed willingness to ignore the time-worn refusal to let characters speak with their backs to the audience when it makes for natural staging and the actors involved can still project what they’re saying.

There are some interesting choices in Tess Lauren Holtzman’s lighting plan for the show. She sometimes abandons naturalistic light, dimming areas of the stage and gently illuminating others where important things are happening. It’s not the glib and obvious follow spot you see in old Broadway musical numbers. It’s subtly cinematic and it works well.

African American Theater Arts Troupe have put together a fine piece of ensemble-theater well worth the climb up the Arts Department hillside at UCSC.


MPC’s Hamlet

MPC Hamlet

By Philip Pearce

THERE’S AN EXCITING NEW piece of raw local theater called Hamlet now playing at MPC. I’ve seen dozens of deeper and more meaningful productions. But few if any of them have plunged me with such headlong force straight into the passions and hang-ups of its cast of characters.

An inspired new Theatre Arts instructor named Justin Matthew Gordon has pared the script down to a swift two and a quarter hours. He directs with a single-minded commitment that honors the play’s rollercoaster ride of melodramatic events and cuts away any subtlety or subtext that threatens to get in the way.

Justin Gaudoin—he was the Man of La Mancha at the Forest Theater last year—plays the title role with a full-throttled power that may occasionally get too loud and energetic for comfort but is never, ever boring. Facing the Ghost (James Brady, who doubles as Claudius) he writhes and shrieks and stiffens like a man receiving electric shock treatment. The familiar soliloquies that follow aren’t philosophic reflections; they’re explosive howls of frustration, confusion and rage. The one exception is “To be or not to be,” which is pushed way ahead of its usual spot and becomes a quietly troubled meditation on mortality after the killing of Polonius. But the overriding Sturm und Drang of this explosive Hamlet’s inner life clearly suggest that right from the start he’s deranged if not certifiable.

How do you then deal with his contrasting decision to put on an antic disposition in a series of deft and deliberate knockabout comedy routines that affront the court and are clearly the work of a talented, organized and shrewdly calculating young politician?

Is Hamlet really crazy of just pretending? It’s fascinating to watch Gordon play both sides of the old debate without ever coming to a conclusion. Too many exciting story events to cover to bother pausing for an answer?

The cast all perform with the heightened excitement of people who suspect they’re involved in something new and important. There are sharp characterization choices all along the way, some of them questionable, some of them inspired.

Gordon decides once or twice too often to have Hamlet solve every conflict by flooring and throttling his writhing opponent. But one of this actor’s academic specialties being stage combat, his final sword fight with Roland Shorter’s Laertes is a heart-stopper and I have never seen or heard a better take on the graveside moments with the skull of Yorick.

Almost from the start, Ophelia shows symptoms of insanity which Sarah Horn diversifies and develops impressively with each new appearance.

Howard Burnham never puts a foot wrong as the smarmiest, most meticulous and funny Polonius you’re likely to see in the next couple of decades.

Lyla Englehorn dies beautifully as Gertrude but offers most of her lines at a brisk and breathless speed that often masks what she’s saying.

James Brady starts appropriately as a smiling but conventionally dull Claudius, only to sink his teeth firmly into the role when he tries to pray away his villainy. Like Macbeth he becomes a man who knows all the depths and shoals of his sin and breaks your heart with his inability to change.

It’s a show where the flaws and glitches are nearly as interesting as the triumphs.

Leaving the Studio Theatre, I was more convinced than ever that, edit or slant it as you will, committed, in-your-face Shakespeare is Shakespeare at his best.

Go and see this one. It continues weekends through March 18th.