At Williamstown, a 60-year-old American classic reaches out
WILLIAMSTOWN — You can feel the weight in the very opening moment of Mandi Masden's entrance as Ruth Younger in Robert O'Hara's revelatory, incendiary tear-down-the-walls revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
It's there in her sagging eyes as she moves through the half light with routinized familiarity from the curtained off bedroom she shares with her husband, Walter Lee (Francois Battiste), to the living room couch, which is the bed for their son, Travis (Owen Tabaka). Another day begins as she rouses Travis, his clothes and a towel neatly folded in her hands, along with Travis' toiletries as he stirs into the daily ritual of getting into the bathroom down the hall that the Youngers share with the other tenants in their cramped second floor flat somewhere ion Chicago's Southside. It is 7:30 on a Friday morning, another school day for Travis; another work day for Walter Lee, who works as a chauffeur; another day at college for Ruth's sister-in-law, Beneatha (Nikiya Mathis); another day of working in some white family's kitchen for Ruth. And it will be another day in a troubled marriage to a man who, as played by Battiste, is frustrated, angry, crippled by a social system that appears to block him at every turn and a deceased father who has left an imposing legacy.
That legacy, it turns out, includes a $10,000 insurance payment made out to the family matriarch, Lena Younger (S. Epatha Merkerson), that is due to arrive the next day. For the family, that check is a sign of hope for the deferred dreams that collide around this deteriorating apartment complete with peeling wallpaper and exposed framework.
For Beneatha (an energetic, layered, engaging Nikiya Mathis), a progressive college-attending black woman in pre-Civil Rights movement America, the money is a down payment for medical school. For Walter Lee, the money represents his shot at the American dream through entrepreneurship. The money represents his share of an investment in a liquor store he wants to buy with two partners. For Lena, the money is a way out, literally, of the "rat trap," as Ruth calls it, in which they are living by making a down payment on a house, complete with a backyard for Travis to play in and a small patch of earth in which Lena can place the hardy houseplant that is the only natural green in their apartment.
It's the collision of those dreams and a maneuver by Walter Lee that betrays a trust and very nearly brings all these dreams crashing down that provides the fuel that ignites the issues at the heart of the play.
In the 60 years since its Broadway debut, "A Raisin in the Sun" has earned a rightful place as a true American classic. I think there also has been a certain aura of safety and comfort surrounding Hansberry's realistic drama, which follows in a long tradition in American drama of using the family as a vehicle for broader discussion.
But there is little that is safe, comforting or, at times, even realistic about director Robert O'Hara's interpretation. He breaks the fourth wall, challenges the play's realistic texture and, in one scene, in particular, throws the play's issues directly in the face of the theater audience.
In this setting, Battiste's Walter Lee is less than the suffering figure who achieves a kind of heroic grace as he rights a wrong and assumes his father's place as head of the family. This is an angry, verbally abusive man who recklessly throws his marriage and job in peril. He drinks. The greatest value he has instinctively learned from his father is the love he bears Travis. "Big Walter used to say ... 'Seem like God didn't see fit to give the black man, nothing but dreams — but He did give us children to make them dreams seem worthwhile,' says Lena, who agrees with Ruth that Walter was a fine man, "just couldn't never catch up with his dreams, that's all."
In a very real sense that is also much of what "A Raisin in the Sun" is about — catching up with dreams; being a step or two behind, sometimes because you are your own worst enemy; sometimes because the obstacles are not of your own making.
Battiste's Walter Lee is a formidable challenge. Masden's beautifully crafted Ruth gives back as good as she gets to the point, and not in a bad way, this "Raisin in the Sun" almost becomes her play, her journey. She stands her ground, nourished by the diminishing love she does feel for Walter Lee. She advocates on his behalf to Lena, a woman of deep faith and principle who is doing her best to hold the headstrong members of her family together as a whole. In what she believes is in their best interests, she makes a down payment on a house in an all-white Chicago suburb, Clybourne Park — a move that draws a visit to the Younger household by a man named Karl Lindner (perfectly played by Joe Goldammer) representing the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, with an offer he trusts the Younger family cannot refuse.
Merkerson's Lena is a woman of strong faith and principle. She has learned a good deal from life, especially her marriage to Walter (played by Warner Miller), who, in a gratuitous maneuver by O'Hara, appears as a silent, spectral presence whom only she can see and from whom she still draws strength. She is firm and grounded where Walter Lee is a volcano in steady eruption.
It's not simply a more complex, angry young black man in search of his piece of the American dream that moves O'Hara's view of "Raisin in the Sun" beyond its comfort zone. In a play about breaking down barriers, O'Hara literally breaks through the stage's "fourth wall" when Battiste's Walter Lee, who has invited Lindner back to the house, turns from his mother and sister to the audience and challenges all of us with a strong, tough, angry denunciation of the hypocrisy that has entrapped them all. "What's the matter with you!" he says, ostensibly to his mother and Beneatha, who, from their positions in semi-dark behind Walter Lee's "spotlight" also are facing the audience. "I didn't make this world! It was given to me this way!"
It's a calculated, stylistic disruption that feels gratuitous and showy.
Still, none of O'Hara's inventions — this "show" turn by Walter Lee; the appearances of his father — are preparation for the shattering maneuver O'Hara engineers at the very end as the Younger family prepares for what lies ahead in the next stage of their life as a black family in white America.
"I sure hope you people know what you're getting into," a clearly dissatisfied Lindner says.
O'Hara makes sure that we do.
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