The poem from which “A Raisin in the Sun” takes its title asks “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun .... Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”
That question remained unanswerable in 1951, when poet Langston Hughes asked it in “Harlem,” and 1959, when Lorraine Hansberry became the first black woman to get a play produced on Broadway. In a nation where fault lines divide us deeply, it’s sadly relevant now. (It also deals with feminism, assimilation, distrust of the educated, black-on-black crime and other current issues.)
So this is a timely, slightly daring choice for Theatre Charlotte. Not daring theatrically – it’s been fixed in the dramatic canon for six decades – but provocative for insisting we haven’t adequately addressed American racism.
That’s expressed subtly in Hansberry’s play, where the emissary of segregated Clybourne Park politely urges a black family not to move in. He’s willing to give them more than their down payment to stay away, because he’s sure the Youngers and his neighbors will be happier living apart.
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Nobody makes a threat, veiled or otherwise. He’s more amiable (if perhaps more insidious) than overt racists who feel empowered by the 2016 presidential election. Yet the attitude is the same: If you have the wrong skin color, stay where you belong.
Director Kim Parati emphasizes humor – I’ve never heard so much laughter at “Raisin” before – which of course heightens moments of humiliation and tension.
The play can easily be overacted, because it can support outsized performances. George C. Wolfe parodied these in his 1986 play “The Colored Museum,” with a sketch dubbed “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play.” It’s a long sit when a director includes unneeded scenes – one between Walter Lee Younger and his son, one with a gossipy neighbor – Hansberry later allowed directors to cut.
Yet Parati draws natural performances from her cast. Jermaine Gamble’s Walter Lee seethes but doesn’t overstate his bottled anger. Hadassah McGill shows both the strength and weakness of his patient wife. Silka Silah El Bey makes his brainy sister fervent yet immature enough to take the edge off her blunt utterances. Natasha T. Wall avoids caricature as the devout grandmother in a role that could easily turn preachy.
Theatre Charlotte has shown over the years that it welcomes new faces, and seven of the 12 roles went to TC first-timers. (Parati and husband Tim Parati, who designed the homey and aptly cluttered set, also make their TC debuts.) I’d guess they were drawn by a chance to do a play that, familiar as it may be after 58 years, has the power to shake us.
Most people think Hughes wrote “Harlem” about the African-American dream of justice, economic mobility and access to power. I wonder if he didn’t also mean the American dream, the vision of a country where all have equal rights and opportunities. Either way, “Raisin” reminds us his question hasn’t been answered.