A Raisin in the Sun
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Eight years after a memorably powerful production of Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs, the Royal Exchange turns at long last to her most famous play -the first play by a black woman ever to be performed on Broadway - A Raisin In The Sun.
The black Younger family lives in a cockroach-infested apartment on Chicago's Southside in 1959. They all struggle to make ends meet in menial jobs as they have done for years, but matriarch Lena is about to receive a cheque for $10,000 from a life insurance policy on her recently-deceased husband. Her son Walter Lee wants to invest it in a liquor store project with a couple of his dubious friends; her daughter Beneatha wants to go to college to train to be a doctor; daughter-in-law Ruth seems happier with Lena's own plan to buy a house for them all to live in.
Walter Lee's temper gradually gets worse as his ambitions considerably outstrip his ability to break out of poverty and menial jobs serving 'white folks'. Beneatha goes out with rich George but refuses to marry him as she is infatuated with Nigerian academic Joseph Asagai who is taking her back to her African roots. When Walter's plans fall apart and a man from the all-white neighbourhood where their new house is offers to pay them off not to move there, the question is whether the family will continue to tear itself apart with arguments or stand together against this outside threat.
Hansberry was just 29 years old when she wrote this incredibly mature and quite restrained piece of theatre that is as accomplished as anything written by any of her contemporaries, male or female, black or white. The characters are all superbly drawn with their own strong opinions and voices - even the white man who tries to turn them away from their dream home is portrayed as a reasonable man who is trying to do the best for everyone rather than a torch-wielding racist in a white hood. If she could write something like this at such a young age, it is painful to contemplate what we have missed out on by her death at the age of only 34.
Michael Buffong's production is perfectly-paced so that even the slow, quieter moments are laden with atmosphere and never dull. On a wonderfully evocative set by Ellen Cairns, the cast is totally convincing as a bickering family. Starletta DuPois is perfect as the matriarchal Lena, solid in her opinions and her control but wavering when her beloved children start to break away from her. Ray Fearon gives an incredibly powerful performance as Walter Lee, childishly naïve and ambitious but also selfish and unwilling to listen to others' opinions. Tracy Ifeachor is also perfect as Beneatha who is just as ambitious as her brother, despite her looking down on him, and just as determined to break through class and colour barriers.
The person who holds the family together in her subtle way without seeming to interfere is Walter's wife Ruth, played here in a wonderfully-nuanced performance by Jenny Jules. There are also great performances in the smaller parts including Damola Adelaja as Asagai, Simon Coombs as George, Tom Hodgkins as white neighbour-to-be Karl Lindner, Ray Emmet Brown as Walter's 'business partner' and a wonderfully-natural performance from Lyndon Rhoden who played Walter and Ruth's ten-year-old son Travis at the reviewed performance.
There is laughter, there are tears, there are moments when you want to comfort one of the characters or slap some sense into another; it combines family drama, politics, big issues, humour and arguments in a way that soap opera producers can only dream of.
The Royal Exchange doesn't often really nail a production as there is nearly always something that doesn't quite work, but when it really gets a production right it can produce something very special. It certainly got Les Blancs right nine years ago, and now it has taken a risk with one of the most iconic black American plays of the twentieth century from the same writer. The result is not just a must-see for theatre fans in Manchester but a production worth travelling some distance to see.
To 20th February 2010
Reviewer: David Chadderton