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A Raisin in the Sun

Lorraine Hansberry
Eclipse Theatre Company
The Albany Theatre

Alisha Bailey and Ashley Zhangazha Credit: Johan Persson
A Raisin in the Sun Credit: Johan Persson
A Raisin in the Sun Credit: Johan Persson

Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun burns with dramatic indignation at a world that limits the hopes of so many people because of the colour of their skin.

It centres on an African American family where the character Lena is to receive a large insurance payment following the death of her husband. She lives in a crowded apartment in the Southside of Chicago with her daughter Beneatha, her married son Walter, his wife Ruth (Alisha Bailey) and their son Travis (Kiano Samuels the night I saw the play).

The money becomes a focus for the dreams they have of a better life in America of the 1950s where everything was supposed to be improving. It also underlines how illusionary that idea can be if you live in a racist society.

Lena thinks they should use the opportunity to get a new home and puts down a deposit on a house in the all-white neighbourhood of Clybourne Park. This results in a visit from Karl Lindner, a white representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association who offers to buy the property to keep the area white. Beneatha later mockingly sums up his position as, "everybody ought to learn to sit down and hate each other with good Christian fellowship."

The events of the play are in part inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s own family history. In 1937, her family moved into an all-white neighbourhood of Chicago. The home was repeatedly attacked. Lorraine recalled being spat at en route to school. A State judge decided the best solution to the harassment was to order her family to move. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled they could stay.

However, the 1950s are a different time and Lena’s children no longer respond in the same way as their parents. They are restless for change and have bigger ideas. Lena at one point confides to Ruth that they are something very new to her.

Walter wants the money invested in a business that makes money like the "white boys" he sees no older than himself "sitting in quiet looking restaurants... turning deals."

His sister Beneatha, a student planning to be a doctor, is becoming politically radical, and developing an interest in her African heritage.

A Raisin in the Sun is one of the greatest plays of the last hundred years. Its sharp, funny, realistic dialogue is always interesting, often poetic and completely believable.

The Eclipse Theatre production is fast-moving and clear with detailed, solid direction from Dawn Walton. There are good often moving performances from the whole cast.

The character of Walter is an emotional roller coaster that can be hard to perform. It is easy to underplay the part or worse to shift it up a notch too far into painful melodrama. In a remarkable performance, Ashley Zhangazha as Walter spends twenty minutes easing himself into the part before delivering an emotionally and physically pitch perfect interpretation that becomes the dramatic centre of the play.

I also grew to really enjoy Susan Wokoma as Beneatha, who drew out the humour in the text without ever losing the seriousness of the arguments. The audience laughed a good deal as she verbally sparred with her brother Walter or the two male students she was dating.

In one of the final scenes, the character Asagai, a student friend of Beneatha from Nigeria, comments on the insurance legacy that has become a focus of the hopes of the family. He says, "isn’t there something wrong in a world where all the dreams good or bad must depend on the death of a man." It is a reflection that many will have applied to the continuing struggle for civil rights.

This year, thousands were again marching in America with the Black Lives Matter movement against the police murder of black people. Civil Rights activists are talking about the new Jim Crow laws which are restricting the rights of black people to vote, to accommodation and to jobs. These are provocative reasons why A Raisin in the Sun continues to have an urgent poetic relevance to the world.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna