What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
When Lorraine Hansberry selected the line from Langston Hughes’ poem as the title of her 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun she had no clue she had written one of the most important American plays of the 20th century. In fact, when the play previewed on Broadway to mixed reviews, she didn’t know if it would succeed at all, much less break so many barriers so completely.
It was the first play by an African American woman on Broadway, also first with an African-American director. At age twenty-nine Hansberry became the youngest American playwright, the fifth woman and the only African American to date to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. In its authentic, realistic depiction of everyday life for an African-American family expressed with such superlative artistry, A Raisin in the Sun ended, definitively, the American stage’s neglect of the African American experience, its creativity and issues. In 1961, a film version, now considered classic, won a special award at the Cannes Film Festival and Hansberry’s screenplay received nomination for a Screen Writer’s Guild Award. A Raisin in the Sun has been translated on all continents into over thirty languages, and performed in numerous productions abroad. In the U.S., through stage, film, television and book publications, literally millions of people have had some acquaintance with the American Southside Chicago Younger family—their fears, challenges and…dreams-some deferred and some realized. Dreams are what it’s about.
On Friday March 27, African American Repertory Theater in Desoto opened a bold, lyrically energized production of A Raisin in the Sun, as fresh and relevant to today’s issues and concerns as it was in 1959. One of few Caucasians in the nearly sold out house, I sat with regional award-winning African-American playwright, director and producer Willie Holmes. With delight we observed the house fill up with an enthused, eager audience— toddlers and moms, pre-teens in small herds, entire families, pairs of young adults on dates, business people rushing straight from the office, retirement center residents, some people clearly well-to-do, others close to indigent. The hall throbbed with noisy anticipation. Holmes and I wondered if the play could still reach today’s audience and hold their attention. As the first scene unfolded, our fears were allayed. Hansberry’s play, William Earl Ray’s sharp, relevant direction and a truly outstanding ensemble cast featuring film and stage star Irma P. Hall had the full focus of the rowdy, diverse crowd. It’s a refreshing experience to be part of an audience that reacts honestly, spontaneously and vociferously to the twists and turns of plot, the successes and failures of family life as depicted by on stage actors. The laughter, the sighs, the groans, the hoots and shouts in on-going response were all visceral testament to the exquisite caliber of art emerging before us.
It’s a rare pleasure to watch an actor own a role. Many inhabit roles well, give unique interpretations and inspire heated discussion long after the final curtain. But to really OWN a role? That doesn’t happen very oft. An honor to watch it take place. I’ve seen Vince McGill give solid artistic performances before but none like this. As Raisin unfolds, we watch his character Walter emerge from a numb sleepwalker state, through rage, sorrow, desperation, bitter dejection and self-recrimination, to a sweet transcendent self-actualization. Effortless, naturally flowing, understated, this “raisin in the sun” does explode and finds inspired validation as he triumphs over mundane distractions to live his dream. McGill masters the role and carries the production.
There is no weak performance in the ensemble. From Regina Washington who portrays Walter’s ambitious younger sister, inhabiting her role kinesthetically from her toenails up, to Taylore Mahogany Scott as Walter’s long-suffering, no nonsense wife– the “backbone” of the household and on stage anchor to reality, to quietly expressive Joshua White as the Youngers’ pre-teen son, to Alonzo Waller as effervescent African Joseph Asagi who dreams of a re-energized African nation, the realities of African-American experience are deftly brought to life with vitality, truth and interest. Presiding over all with wisdom and love is Irma P. Hall as Lena, the matriarch of the family. She reminds everyone where they came from and what paths truly matter in life, as hard as choosing those paths can be. “A force of nature” as described by Quentin Tarantino, Ms. Hall brings a poignant depth to the production. Never a stereotypical tyrant but ever the play’s moral center, her character’s love and determination inspire her confused son Walter’s transformation with credible authority and wit. It’s a refined yet earthy portrayal, a joy to watch this revered professional so at ease in her craft.
Director William (Bill) Earl Ray liberates his cast to fully explore individual possibilities while weaving them into a cohesive whole. He may claim to be ‘cursed with perfectionism’, but it’s sure fun to watch the result when he works his considerable directorial wizardry on such a text with artists of this caliber.
Don’t miss it. A Raisin in the Sun runs through April 12 at the Corner Theater, 211 E. Pleasant Run in Desoto. For tickets, call 972-572-0998 or go online: http://www.aareptheater.com
Poem “Harlem” (sometimes called “Dream Deferred”) from Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) by Langston Hughes American visionary poet, columnist, dramatist, essayist, lyricist, novelist, social activist, writer of African and Native American heritage (1902-1967)
Lorraine Hansberry American playwright 1930-1965