Monday, February 14, 2005

A Raisin in the Sun (Beck Center)

RAISIN IN THE SUN’ gets creditable production at Beck

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?

This segment of the poem "A Dream Deferred" by Clevelander Langston Hughes is the underlying theme for Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A RAISIN IN THE SUN,’ now on stage at the Beck Center for the Arts.

On March 11, 1959, ‘A RAISIN IN THE SUN’ opened on Broadway. The play had already negotiated a long and troubled road just to find its way to the opening and was filled with many firsts. It was the first major on-Broadway play by a Black female author. It thrust many of its rookie Broadway cast members into major entertainment roles including Cleveland-born Ruby Dee, and future superstars Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil.

No one could foresee that the play's imminent triumph would mirror the changing role of Blacks in this country and the role the play’s themes would play in African American culture in the years that followed.

The New York Drama Critics Circle named the Hansberry play the best American play of 1959 though this, probably the most important African American theatrical piece ever written, failed to receive either a Pulitzer Prize or a Tony for Best Play.

‘A RAISIN IN THE SUN’ relates the story of the Youngers, a Southside Chicago family trying to survive in cramped ghetto quarters. When Mama gets a $10,000 check from her husband's life insurance, they consider moving to a house in a white suburb. A suburb in which the residents warn that they don’t want a Black family as their neighbors.

A RAISIN IN THE SUN’ is clearly autobiographical. Chicago, where Hansberry was born in 1930, was self-segregated along racial lines at the time. As a child, Hansberry's family became one of the first to move into a white neighborhood. When their neighbors rebelled, both with threats of violence and legal action, the Hansberrys defended themselves. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

Hansberry told her husband she wanted to write a social drama about Blacks that was good art. She succeeded. Instead of stereotyped characters that would bear no resemblance to actual people, she held up a mirror to the racial nature of this country.

The Beck Center’s production is fine, as far as it goes. The missing element is the extra quality that would make the experience, as Hansberry intended, “painfully realistic.” It may be that the play, itself, has lost some of its power due to the changes that have taken place, at least in some areas of this country. But, more importantly there is an inconsistency in the acting and pacing.

Having seen the original New York production, and being swept up by its power, I feel that some of the Margaret Ford Taylor directed production was diminished because of the production’s languid pace, its lack of consistent intensity. This takes away from the play’s mission.

As for the performances, Connie Blair is fine as Mama, the head of the household. At times, however, she loses her stiff back, her stubborn pride. Sonia Bishop is right on target as her daughter-in-law, Ruth. The scene in which she pleads for the family to move, to develop their dignity, was extremely effective.

Michael May as the son is strongest in his rage scenes, but not as effective in displaying his frustration. Evelyn Stewart lacked the consistent depth of conviction as Beneatha, the daughter who is in training to be a doctor.

Young Anthony Nickerson is appealing as Walter and Ruth’s son. John Polk is on target as the representative of the white homeowners who don’t want the Youngers as neighbors. Jason Samuel’s version of one of Beneatha’s suitors consists of a bad accent which oftten makes him impossible to understand and distracting facial expressions, while Jonathan Wray as George, the other suitor, feigns character development.

Don McBride’s scenic design adds to the era-correct feeling of the play.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The strength of Beck’s ‘A RAISIN IN THE SUN’ is Hansberry’s finely written script. It reflects an important slice of American history. Though the performances and pacing don’t always develop the depth of the material, but the end result is a very acceptable production.