Keeping the classics relevant to audiences in the here and now is always a challenge. The question is: how much has the social and economic landscape that is so crucial to the story changed during the half century since A Raisin in the Sun was written?
Maybe not so much as we might presume. Actually, some might even argue that the gap between rich and poor is far greater today than it was in 1959. And that gap, as Walter Lee (well played by Keith H. Alston) notes, is where so much of the desperation of modern life slips in.
“And you — ain’t you bitter, man?” he asks in one of the play’s most honest and revealing moments. “Ain’t you just about had it yet? Don’t you see no stars gleaming that you can’t reach out and grab?”
When money has been in short supply and a nice, but finite, sum finally appears in our hands, long simmering hostilities can arise in even the closest of families. Meet the Youngers: a family crammed into a small apartment in Chicago’s Southside, back in the early 1950s. The arrival of a life insurance check is all it takes to cast light on just how different the hopes and dreams of the various family members are.
If there were enough to make each individual’s dream come true, all would be well. But there isn’t. Somehow, the group has to decide what will work best for everyone, not just for the one who screams the loudest or makes the greatest show of tears.
Walter Lee is tired of his servile role in the working world. He wants to increase his status by owning his own business. Lena (an electrifying performance by A. Nellie Bloedourn), as the family matriarch, wants to fulfill a longstanding dream of home ownership. Beneatha (Juanita B. Green), the college student, wants... well, what she wants depends on the hour of the day. Some of the best comic touches of the play arrive in her scenes.
Some of the most heartbreaking scenes are the ones in which characters (most notably Walter Lee) only see what they don’t have, while failing to recognize the love and support that is all around them.
Kudos must go to director Henry Clay Middleton for the obvious love he put into this revival of the time-honored classic as well as to the set designers: they did a smashing job of recreating the feel of a cramped, confining living space that plays well against the need of the characters to escape and grow.
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was groundbreaking long ago not only because of its confrontation of issues of the time but also because of how deep it digs into the perennial conflicts of family, ambition, identity, and social status. The realities of racism and socioeconomic exclusion are especially hot topics in the play.
Mr. Linder (Chris Dowling), a representative from the Neighborhood Association where Lena puts a down payment on property, exemplifies a kind of thinly veiled racism and political doublespeak that remains intractable to this day. The problem, he points out (and in this, he is correct), is that different kinds of people do not speak to one another or try to understand how it feels to walk in one another’s shoes. From this, however, he segues into talk of how the family would be far happier in another neighborhood, with their “own kind.”
In other words: yes, we know that lack of communication and lack of empathy are why these problems linger on and on, but, well, we’re comfortable, so we’d really rather not have to think about your problems.
That alone should put paid to the question of whether A Raisin in the Sun is still relevant today.