“Raisin in the Sun” at the Public

The first grown-up straight play I remember seeing was Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in Chicago. I didn’t see it the first time it played Chicago, when it stopped there on its way to Broadway in February 1959 and, to the surprise of its author, received a rave review in the Chicago Tribune from the often-acerbic Claudia Cassidy. Raisin opened on Broadway a little later and was an enormous hit. In the summer of 1960, a film version was shot. It had not been released, though, when I went to see its return engagement at the Blackstone Theatre in early 1961 as a theater-mad kid. (The film, directed by Daniel Petrie, was released in May, 1961.) I remember little about the experience except that I was riveted. Being ten years old at the time, I doubt I understood the political or social context much. I probably just hooked into the emotion.

But, from what I’ve read in various memoirs and histories, the Raisin I saw was different from the one that played in Chicago two years before. The first run had featured Sidney Poitier as the star and McNeil had supporting billing. Billing be damned, McNeil thought her character, Lena Younger, was the leading character in the play, and she and Poitier were on hostile terms for much of the time they worked together (including when they made the film). Poitier had gone back to being a movie star by the time I saw the play at the Blackstone. And then it was “Claudia McNeil in A Raisin in the Sun” with all of the other actors listed in the same sized typed as supporting players under the title. The story is that McNeil’s performance was fueled by the spirit of retribution. There is a moment when Lena slaps her daughter Beneatha for doubting the existence of God. McNeil never bothered to learn how to do a stage slap, and night after night she actually slapped Diana Sands across the face to the point at which Sands threatened to bring her up on Equity charges.

As I’ve mentioned, whose play Raisin is has been a matter of debate from the start. Poitier believed it was Walter Lee’s, that the script described the journey of the character from impatience and immaturity to the point where he stood up to the bigotry of the whites trying to keep him and his family from moving into Clybourne Park. McNeil was just as certain that the story was about Lena’s drive to get her family out of the ghetto and into a decent house.

There have been a few articles about how Robert O’Hara, the director of the current revival at the Public Theater, feels that the play belongs to all three leading women in the story (the other two being Walter Lee’s sister, Beneatha, and his wife, Ruth). He has made the point that Walter Lee begins no scenes but comes into scenes that have been started by the women. These articles suggest that his production of Raisin is a radical re-imagining of the play.

Not really. There are some expressionistic flourishes (some of which work better than others), but mostly this is a solidly-acted, mostly naturalistic production.

The biggest change is in the rhythm in which the play is performed. Years ago, Jonathan Miller, without cutting a word of the text, cut a half hour off the running time of his production of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night by having the characters talk over each other a lot. His rationale was that the issues the Tyrones brought up had probably been brought up many times before, so there was no reason for the characters to listen respectfully to things they already had heard. Director Robert O’Hara has this Raisin company play similarly, speaking over each other as people in the middle of heated discussions rehashing old business do. Does this work? Yes. Beautifully.

My particular interest in this production is rooted in my long-term admiration of and friendship for Tonya Pinkins. (No pretense of objectivity here. I think she’s a wonder.) Pinkins played Lena once before as a guest artist in a university production, but the experience left a sour taste in her mouth. Here she has the chance to do it right, and she seizes it. Her Lena has her share of the sentiment and wisdom that led George C. Wolfe to satirize the character in “The Last Mama on the Couch Play.” But it also has a ferocious side that justifies Beneatha calling her a tyrant; when Beneatha makes a crack about the non-existence of God, Pinkins not only slaps her (the moment that brought McNeil and Sands to conflict in Chicago), she brings her to her knees. (Incidentally, she is not the only one to discipline a child physically. At another point, we know that Ruth is going offstage to paddle Travis–reluctantly, but she feels she has to do it. The play takes place at a time when we had fewer concerns about corporal punishment.)

I’ve seen several productions of videos of Raisin over the years. Some of what some think are innovations in this production I have seen before. The restoration of the scene with Mrs. Johnson, the conservative neighbor down the hall, was a feature of the compelling TV version starring Danny Glover and Esther Rolle (available on YouTube here.) And bringing back Lena’s husband as a ghost was a feature of the production I saw at the Huntington Stage in Boston in 2013. I think Mrs. Johnson’s presence helps us understand another aspect of Lena and so is a useful addition. But I think, as I thought in 2013, that the ghost has the effect of cutting up food into baby bites for the audience, making obvious something that would be better left to the imagination.

One other thought occurs to me as I recall the several productions of this play I have seen: Walter Lee’s journey means something profoundly different depending on how he is cast. As viewed in the film (which reportedly is a pretty accurate recording of Lloyd Richards’s original stage production, though Richards’s name appears nowhere in the credits), Poitier speaks with almost Shakespearean diction, particularly when he drunkenly parodies the African world Beneatha is exploring. Beneatha’s sometimes suitor, George Murchison, mocks Walter Lee by calling him Prometheus (a reference Walter Lee doesn’t understand), but, like Poitier, both Danny Glover and Denzel Washington gave performances that resonated with that god’s power – their Walter Lees were huge spirits that the walls barely contain. Sean Combs’s interpretation (both onstage and in his more refined TV film performance) to me emphasized the character’s immaturity and impetuousness; when, at the end, Lena (played by Phylicia Rashad) said to Ruth that, by defying the white representative of Clybourne Park, “He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he?”, the line suggested that part of what she meant was reaching adulthood.

Francois Battiste’s take on Walter Lee does not make the claim that he is an extraordinary man trapped in limiting circumstances, nor does it make him a man-child. He’s a grown man chafing against both the barriers imposed by society and having to defer into his adulthood to the parents he has spent his life living with. As much as I’ve admired most of the previous productions I’ve seen of Raisin, O’Hara’s production strikes me as being a particularly vivid depiction of the politics of the family. And part of the value of this production lies in the fact that nobody among the four leads seems to have exclusive possession of what is right.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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1 Response to “Raisin in the Sun” at the Public

  1. Yet another indepth probe of the productions of an important play. Thanks Jeff.

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