For the first time in a month, A Raisin in the Sun has returned to Cleveland stages. It was forty years ago that a 28-year-old black woman named Lorraine Hansberry broadened the scope of American theater by portraying the aspirations of working-class "Negroes" rather than the carnal cravings of Catfish Row exotics.
Hansberry's play is a kitchen-sink drama centering around how a cramped, careworn black family will spend a $10,000 insurance payment. The play focuses on the dilemma of whether the Younger family should use that money to send the ambitious daughter to medical school, to buy a new home in an unwelcoming white neighborhood, or to finance the son's dream of acquiring a liquor store.
Raisin, like A Streetcar Named Desire and Our Town, has been pounded into the mass consciousness by school curricula, a movie, a television remake, and even a surprisingly good musical adaptation (Raisin!). It also sparked a generation of realistic black theater, TV drama, and movies, right up to August Wilson's Fences. It was mercilessly ridiculed in George Wolfe's The Colored Museum as "The-Last-Mama-on-the-Couch" play, where a sanctimonious battleship of a white-wigged matriarch slaps her back-talking, irreverent daughter into piety.
To commemorate the anniversary of this seminal theatrical Emancipation Proclamation, the Great Lakes Theater Festival, in conjunction with the Dallas Theater Center, has come up with a sadly traditionally cast, yet revivifying revival.
Hansberry forced blue-haired matinee ladies and tired businessmen to take note of the after-hour blighted hopes and "deferred dreams" of an entire race, which was mainly looked upon as a collective of domestics and entertainers. Like The Diary of Anne Frank or The Grapes of Wrath, Hansberry's play humanized and personalized its plea for tolerance and understanding by taking its audiences throughout the travails of its vividly drawn, lower-middle-class black family.
The playwright strikes some vivid notes out of classic American dramas. From The Glass Menagerie comes the struggle of an indomitable matriarch to save her troubled children and keep her disintegrating family intact. From Death of a Salesman, there is the delusional belief in easy success through the almighty dollar.
When a pioneering work enters freshman drama textbooks, it becomes institutionalized; civic virtues take over, and then mummification sets in. It takes a hard-edged, innovative production like the one currently on view at the Ohio Theatre to unwrap the bandages and let it breathe again.
Since this version originated at the Dallas Theater Center, the actors need to whoop up enough excitement to divert the audience's attention from the constant cattle stampedes. Director L. Kenneth Richardson is no limp-wristed archivist; he knows how to dust off a classic. Blowtorching the pious extremes of the original, he assuages the melodramatic excesses of previous productions by emphasizing the moving and human dimensions of the story, giving a whole new "raisin" d'étre, so to speak, to the proceedings.
Along with set designer Donald Eastman, Richardson steers the play away from its kitchen-sink tendencies toward blissful blues surrealism. He does this by upping the ghetto tumult that surrounds the Younger family. Encasing their flat is a hellish train track that seems to entrap them in the nether regions of ironing boards, pesticide spray cans, and constant street noises. The stage shakes with earthquake-like rumbles to parallel the rumbles of this family, as each member's dreams seem to crumble and fall.
Neon party lights encircling the flat suggest the hostile environment that threatens to overwhelm them. To evoke the matriarch's impassioned marriage with her late husband, the director goes out on a limb with Billie Holiday's rendition of "My Man" to punctuate her final exit from the apartment they shared. There is a Zola-like attention to detail, with flypaper strips hanging in the kitchen, stained wallpaper, and a menacing neighbor with a fiendish cigar, who seems to be forever lurking in the outer hall.
The legendary original cast, which included Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, is dead or well on the way. The new, prestigious thespians on the Ohio stage all fill the bill with expansive warmth and enthusiasm. They maneuver from euphoria to angst with the surety of thoroughbreds.
Irma P. Hall's Mama Younger--whether giving tender loving care to her ailing houseplant, defending the sanctity of the Lord with the confidence of an army general, or comforting her wounded family--projects a flinty, hard-won gentleness and honesty. She eschews the Ethel Merman-in-blackface dishonesty of Claudia McNeil's performance on Broadway and in the film. She imbues the evening with a rock-solid spiritual center.
Seated between this critic and a frozen-faced librarian type was a distinguished professor, who has lived long enough to have witnessed the original Broadway incarnation of A Raisin in the Sun, come of age with the film, and taught the play ad nauseam for countless semesters. At curtain's rise, he expected, at best, a mild intellectual curiosity; instead, he experienced an epiphany. By the third act's joyful redemptions, he found himself more genuinely moved than he ever thought he could be by this play. Ditto for this critic and an audience reaching for their handkerchiefs.
In the evening's triumphant final moments, when the family abandons its cramped life in a tenement for a presumably joyful new life in the promised land of suburbia, one can almost envision Lorraine Hansberry, who died at age 34 in 1965, as a black Moses leading her people to a promised land that she would never know.
A Raisin in the Sun, through April 3 at the Ohio Theatre, 1501 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.