Lorraine Would Be Pleased

Posted on March 2, 2011

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Believe it or not, every once in a while I find myself experiencing a bit of culture … outside the city.

At the invitation of one of our Gen Y friends, a group of us attended “A Raisin In The Sun” last weekend, delivered by her community college’s theater company. To my delight, nearly everything about the show was superb.

The set was well constructed, punctuated by genuine 1950s furniture and appliances. Even the radio and, to my knowledge, the pest spray container was true to historical context! The audio, lighting, and time between scenes were also professionally done. I don’t know what I’d expected from a school in La Plata, Maryland or from a group of mostly college-aged thespians, but my expectations were exceeded.

This production stayed true to Lorraine Hansberry’s motif. The Younger family was rightly portrayed as a working class clan struggling to make ends meet in 1950s Chicago, having recently experienced the heart-rending dichotomy of the loss of their hard-working patriarch and the expectation of his life insurance claim. The large portrait of Mr. Younger was deftly hung near the door of the family’s apartment, his worn but determined face reminding each of his loved ones of a life of hard work and sacrifice. His wife, Lena, played by Sonya Hemphill, performed well as his grieving widow striving to maintain her sanity while preventing their $10,000 payout from ripping her family apart. Her daughter and daughter-in-law, portrayed by Alyshia Bradley and Nkeshi Free respectively, were convincing in their depictions of the academic ambition, pursuit of newfound ancestral identity, and the many pressures of domestic expectations  & reproductive options of their characters. Even Lena’s grandson, Travis, was portrayed well as the 10-year-old caught in a pivotal time in the life of his family and constantly sent outside to play so that the adults around him could express their anguish free from peering little eyeballs. But the star of the show was Jay Hunter who played Walter Lee Younger, Lena’s son. Clearly the most talented player of the cast, Jay’s acting would have looked completely as home on a Broadway stage. The restless nature of his character, combined with bouts of rage and moments of striking weakness, were all reflected splendidly in Jay’s acting.

As you’re likely aware, “A Raisin In The Sun” is replete with contentious discussion topics. It’s a well-written drama that brings to stage theories about the economic quagmire of the working poor, issues of race versus class, the frustration of a desperate desire for basic opportunities enjoyed by others … and it even throws in the mix ideas of a couple of class- and cultural outsiders, displaying Black diversity to a world that handily often such a notion.

A few things struck me about this stageplay’s content. One was Walter Lee’s observation that whenever he chauffeured his boss to meetings to important places with important people, he couldn’t help but notice men his age investing, owning companies, and living lives he himself wished he had access to. It was mind-numbing to him that men who were 35 years old like Walter Lee were so much wealthier, yet his son, Travis, had to sleep on the living room couch. Another interesting thing: Walter Lee’s med school-bound sister, Beneatha, had an interest in her African heritage that I’d previously thought hadn’t caught on in modern African America until the 1960s, a decade after the setting of this theatrical. In speaking with people who were children and teenagers during that era, it’d always appeared to me that in the 1950s Africa was still painted with crude bristles and as a result, many Black Americans were embarrassed by the continent of their ancestry. This play showed an earlier interest in ancestral heritage with noteworthy skill. Finally, what a stinging but accurate indictment on 1950s middle class White America and the institutional racism that supported its crass antics when Mr. Lindner had the arrogance to visit the Younger apartment once he and the Clybourne Park Improvement Association learned about the Younger’s home purchase! The people of Clybourne Park preferred to pay the Youngers off than integrate their community. Unfortunately, this and tactics that were much worse met many Black families wishing to exercise their freedoms during that era.

Let me extend a big shout out to the College of Southern Maryland Theater Company’s staging of this Lorraine Hansberry classic. The show last weekend was notable on every level. I look forward to sauntering out to the edge of rural America for a bit of culture again soon.

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Posted in: Theater