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.