When I saw Clybourne Park at A.C.T. back in February, I remember thinking two things: First, that Bruce Norris's script had Pulitzer written all over it (he won the prize in April) and second, that I could not wait to see the 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, that laid the groundwork for Norris's Park.
Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin script is every bit as smart, funny and biting as Norris's, with the added benefit that it explores its characters in greater depth. As for the Pear's production of this wonderful piece of writing, the actors and co-directors more than do it justice. The only downside is the Pear's size (it only seats about 40), which means if you want to see this seldom-produced play, which runs through July 10, get your tickets now; as of this writing, all but two of the performances had sold out.
Much has been made about the universality of the themes in Hansberry's play -- the competing priorities between generations, the alienation that can come between a husband and wife, the regret of deferred or abandoned dreams. Raisin has all that and more, but the play is most captivating for the lovingly detailed portrait it paints of a particular family, the Youngers, living in specific circumstances at a uniquely American moment in time (after World War II and before the Civil Rights Act of 1964).
Jennifer Perkins-Stephens & Michael Wayne Rice
The setting for the almost two-hour drama is a dingy, rat-and-roach infested apartment on Chicago's South Side. This is the home of Lena Younger (Kendra Owens), a pious widow who shares her bedroom with her college student daughter, Beneatha (the expressive and engaging Yhá Mourhia D. Wright). Lena's son, Walter Lee, Jr. (Michael Wayne Rice), a chauffeur, and his wife, Ruth (Jennifer Perkins-Stephens), a housekeeper, sleep in the apartment's other bedroom, while their 10-year-old son, Travis (William David Southall), doesn't have a space to himself at all. He must curl his long legs up on the sofa, which is only a step away from what passes for the kitchen. This is what you call close quarters.
When we meet Ruth (the marvelous Perkins-Stephens is this production's glue), she's trying to rouse her boy because the family shares a bathroom with other tenants on the floor; failure to coordinate trips to the can could make him late for school and her husband late for work, which is the larger tragedy in this money-starved ecosystem. Salvation, though, could be just around the corner because Lena is about to get a check for 10 grand from her late-husband's life-insurance policy.
L to R: Jennifer Perkins-Stephens, Yhá Mourhia D. Wright, Michael Wayne Rice, & Keith C. Marshall
Naturally there are conflicting ideas about what to do with this windfall. Lena wants to make sure at least some of it is set aside so Beneatha can attend medical school. Walter wants to invest in a liquor store, which God-fearing Lena objects to on moral grounds. Putting on a brave face, Ruth tells Lena to take a trip, to do something for herself for a change. But Ruth can't hide the fact that she's suffocating in this tiny apartment. The daily spectacle of her son basically squatting in their living room oppresses her, while her concern about where her unborn child will sleep is weighing more heavily on her every day. Ruth wants a real home, a place where she can raise her family with a bit of dignity and in a modicum of comfort. Is that too much for a person to ask?
For a lot of people in the Younger's world, the answer to that question is 'yes,' but Hansberry took care not to simply blame white America for black America's problems. Yes, the Youngers are the ancestors of slaves, a steep slope to climb out of by any standard, and yes the all-white neighborhood that they want to move to, Clybourne Park, does not want them. But Walter lacks the discipline of his late father, retreating to alcohol and the lure of get-rich-quick schemes hatched by unsavory cohorts his wife can see through in a flash.
Bezachin Jifar & Yhá Mourhia D. Wright
For her part, Beneatha must not only compete in the classroom, she must contend with her family's misguided hopes that she marry a wealthy suitor named George (Alec F. Brown). "The only people snobbier than rich white people are rich colored people," she sniffs. Marrying George would give her financial stability, but can't they see she's determined to make something of herself on her own terms? They cannot, and they really don't get her attraction to a second suitor named Joseph (Bezachin Jifar), who wants her to join him in his native Nigeria. Her assimilated family can't begin to understand such things, but Hansberry made Beneatha smart enough to give us hope that she, if not her brother, will eventually find her way.
A Raisin in the Sun runs through July 10, 2011, at the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View. For tickets and information visit thepear.org.
All photos: Ray Renati.