Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The sun shines on this "Raisin" (at Seattle Rep)

Cast of A Raisin in the Sun (Alan Alabastro)
A Raisin in the Sun
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through October 30, 2016

The production of A Raisin in the Sun at Seattle Repertory Theatre is a fabulous opportunity to see this classic play on stage, and it appears that a good number of regional theaters are realizing that, almost 60 years later, it still represents a huge chunk of the African-American struggle in this country.

When you realize that Lorraine Hansberry only wrote two major plays before she died in her mid-thirties, and how powerful the play is in succeeding the tests of time, it is even more distressing that we lost her voice so soon. While Hansberry certainly wasn’t the first black woman playwright, and Alice Childress (for one) was contemporaneously writing, she was the first to have a play on Broadway. Apparently, that’s all that our theater community often paid attention to.

The title of the play is a reference to a line in a Langston Hughes poem: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” We meet the Younger family. They have such dreams. They dream of getting out of their tenement apartment in Chicago’s South Side, with a shared bathroom for the whole floor. They dream of owning their own house.

Walter Lee (Richard Prioleau) works as a chauffeur and dreams of being a successful businessman. Wife Ruth (Mia Ellis) works as a maid in richer homes and dreams of a house with a garden. Walter’s sister Beneatha (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) dreams of becoming a doctor. Mother Lena (Denise Burse) dreams that each of her children can be more successful than she and her late husband were.

The family is in a tizzy because they are waiting for an insurance payout from Lena’s husband’s untimely demise. $10,000 could change their lives. Lena wants to use it to pay for Beneatha’s schooling and a down-payment on a house. But Walter Lee wants to use the entire amount to pool together with friends to open a liquor store.

The women in this play are full human beings and played beautifully by each actor. Nako, in particular, gets to play all the complex emotions of a young African-American who is on the cusp of societal change, aspiring to a new kind of employment, and breaking out of the submissive, religious chains of her forebears. Her character renounces God as a master and embraces the natural black beauty of her hair. This character is said to be most like Hansberry herself.

Prioleau has a tough row to hoe as a man-boy who is not ready for the trust that his mother puts in him. His is not a likable character, though we understand him. He comes off as a bit too much of a whiner and an opportunist. This makes his turn in the final moments less powerful than it could be, but it may well have been a choice made with director Timothy McCuen Piggee, and is certainly true to the dialogue.

Even if you have never read the play (we all mostly read it, rather than have seen it, I presume), you can tell from the beginning of the almost three hour production that things are not going to go so well. It’s not a surprise that Walter Lee, trusted by his mother to make good choices with cash, makes the wrong choices.

What many might not remember is what happens after that. The rest of the play deals with the choices remaining after bad choices, because there are choices to be made after bad choices. Those choices can compound the mistakes or reach for redemptive change. That is the brilliance of this play. That is what I hope you will remember most clearly after seeing this production.

Technical support is stellar for this production, with a gritty, deteriorating set by Michael Ganio, an auditory pleasure of sound from Matt Starritt, and beautiful swaths of color and pattern from costumer Melanie Taylor Burgess.

The main question mark about the set, for me, was this massive brick wall behind everything, with an American flag hanging from a window-like space. We can read into it, (“the family is hemmed in,” “the wall of the ghetto,” “this is an American story,” etc.) but it is far too literal, if so, and completely unnecessary, and distracting.

This is something to bring the family to, especially high school students. It’s a powerful opportunity to see this classic come to life!

For more information, go to www.seattlerep.org or call 206-443-2222.