By: Paulanne Simmons
October 25, 2022: A Raisin in the Sun made its Broadway debut in 1959. But the drama confronts so many of the issues African Americans still face today – the role of men and women in the black family, racism, African heritage – that it could have been written yesterday.
But although the play is certainly about the racism the Younger family faces, Lorraine Hansberry was much more interested in the family’s response to that racism. This is a play about choices. It is a play about human dignity and how you keep it or lose it when you are poor and black. So, it is unfortunate that Robert O’Hara, who directs the revival that has come to The Public Theater, is more concerned with making his white audience feel guilty than paying tribute to the black people who have met tremendous challenges and triumphed.
For the most part, this is a traditional revival with an excellent cast.
Tonya Pinkins is Lena, the steadfast and indomitable matriarch of the family. Francois Battiste is her son, Walter, a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, who dreams of becoming an entrepreneur. Mandi Masden is his wife, Ruth, a woman who is overwhelmed by poverty, domestic work and the care of her husband and son, Travis (Toussaint Battiste/Camden McKinnon). She is not at all happy to find out she is pregnant. But what troubles her most is her deteriorating relationship with her husband.
The household is completed by Walter’s sister, Beneatha, played by Paige Gilbert. Beneatha, who aspires to become a doctor, is the most intellectual and rebellious Younger. She has two very different boyfriends, the well-to-do and self-satisfied George Murchison (Mister Fitzgerald) and the Nigerian idealist, Joseph Asagai (John Clay III). Beneatha is more impressed with Joseph’s idealism than George’s money.
Scenic designer Clint Ramos’ rendering of the crowded Younger home, with its makeshift clothesline, single dingy window, cross hanging over the doorway and comfortable but shabby furniture, tells us immediately who these people are and what they value. This is the home Walter’s parents lived in, and it is the home he and Ruth have lived in all their married life. Until the eagerly anticipated check for $10,000, representing Walter and Beneatha’s father’s life insurance opens up the possibility of moving.
But the check also introduces other possibilities. Walter wants to open a liquor store with two friends. Beneatha wants to continue her education.
It is when O’Hara indulges his desire to put his mark on this production that the play falters.
Some of O’Hara’s reinterpretations are unnecessary but harmless. Do we really need the appearance of Lena’s husband’s ghost? Why is one of the scenes between Ruth and Walter set offstage and preceded by a bedroom tryst during which we only hear moaning? Is it helpful to have the actors constantly interrupting and speaking over each other so we miss much of the dialogue?
Other reconstructions undermine the play. Walter’s second act monologue is a tour de force. Filled with anger and despair, Walter tells his family they are not going to move into their new home, he is going to accept Karl Lindner’s buyout offer and, what’s more, grovel in front of him because that’s the only way a black man can survive in America. O’Hara sees this as an opportunity to confront his audience. Battiste walks downstage. He is flooded with light. And his speech becomes a soapbox harangue that has little to do with the actual people he is addressing – his family, whose appalled comments now no longer really make sense.
In case there are a few people in the audience who are not sufficiently troubled, O’Hara invents his own ending to the play. He adds one more scene (spoiler) in which we see “Nigger” splattered across the Younger’s new home. As it turns out, according to O’Hara, Walter’s final decision to become a man and not cave in to adversity is meaningless. Nothing has changed. Nothing matters. To white people this is what you’ll always be.
This production is a travesty of Hansberry’s work, a misrepresentation of the world we live in today and a curse on our future.
A Raisin in the Sun runs through Sunday Nov.20, 2022 at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Photography: Joan Marcus