A Raisin in the Sun Still Shines

It is interesting to me that I have heard murmurings about Soulpepper’s production of Lorraine Hansberry’s historic play A Raisin in the Sun, asking about its relevance for Toronto’s audience in 2008. Most critics have assured their readers that the story “will still resonate” with contemporary audiences, but I find it interesting that these questions are even being asked. Soulpepper Theatre was founded by twelve actors in 1998 and its mandate is to “explore the great stories of classical theatre and inspire the next generation of artists and audiences.” When paired with Schiller and Ibsen, A Raisin in the Sun, which opened on Broadway in 1959, seems almost contemporary. In fact, according to Alison Sealy-Smith, this is the first production in ten years that Soulpepper has produced featuring a black playwright, director and almost entirely black cast. Under these circumstances, I think the question that should be asked is not, “is this play relevant?” but rather “why did it take so long for it to be produced here?” Why don’t I hear these critics asking if a Soulpepper production of Three Sisters is relevant? Surely that classic is even more dated and bares less resemblance to life in Toronto (or life in Russia) today than A Raisin in the Sun… Do we simply want to justify for ourselves that we’ve changed and grown as a white population and to assure ourselves that “these racist issues” don’t exist anymore? Isn’t that a dangerous way of thinking?
A Raisin in the Sun is an important piece of theatre history. Lorraine Hansberry became Broadway’s first female black playwright and Lloyd Richards became Broadway’s first black director in 1959. It is also wonderful to see this play at Soulpepper, a company that was formed by twelve white actors, starring such amazing black actors. That said; the play doesn’t strike me as being “that black issue play.” A Raisin in the Sun is a wonderful story about fascinating characters and there are strong connections that can be made to people living in various places, of numerous cultures, religions, races, colors and creeds. That is the beauty of the play, it transcends into the universal while being firmly planted in the specific. I think it’s important for the black community to take ownership and feel pride in Hansberry if their hearts move in that way, of course, but I also feel like A Raisin in the Sun speaks about so much more than racism. It deals with striking issues of class that are still strongly present in our world today, intense issues of sexism, and the difficulties faced by members of different generations trying to connect. It is a play that doesn’t belong to any one class, or color, or gender and that should be seen by all generations of people.
An audience member the night that I saw the show told some of the actors at the talkback afterward that they had gotten the show “just right.” I wondered how one has the authority to judge what is “right” and what is “wrong” in the theatre, and I know that everything can be chalked up to subjectivity… but I agreed with the audience member’s perception. Everything did seem to be “right.” The set (Scott Reid)- kitchen sink realism to the point that Charles Officer (Walter Lee Younger) gets some water from a real kitchen sink tap and Abena Malika (Ruth Younger) keeps offering other characters milk from a real refrigerator- seems just “right”. The direction by Weyni Mengesha brings the audience right into the Younger’s tiny apartment and we watch their lives unfold like we’re a sea of cockroaches that Beneatha (Cara Ricketts) can’t kill. It all seems “right.” This is the way this play is “supposed to be.” Especially poignant were Mengesha’s transitions where the entire housing complex came to life creating a real sense of how cramped and loud the Younger’s surroundings were.
The shining stars of this play are the members of its talented cast. Awaovieyi Agie is charming, yet complex, as Joseph Asagai, a man who seems to champion the woman Beneatha Younger wants to be, but who still remains an imperfect product of his chauvinistic time. Barbara Barnes-Hopkins is simply hysterical as the shortsighted Mrs. Johnson and Michael Blake will make you want to hit his character upside the head. Diego Matamoros gives a delicate performance of the troubling, nuanced Karl Lidner- a character the audience will always hate on principle-, which must be difficult for Matamoros to play.
Sixth grader Kofi Payton is so charming and so remarkably natural as Travis Younger; he threatens to steal the show. Charles Officer gives a beautiful performance as the deeply troubled and complex Walter Lee Younger who is so fraught with contradictions at times its difficult to decide whether you’re on his side or not. Abena Malika is poignant in her portrayal of Ruth Younger, creating rich, nuanced relationships filled with frustration, loyalty, love and humanity. Cara Ricketts is spirited and dynamic as Beneatha Younger, a twenty year old filled with hope and hints of a progressive future. Ricketts’ reaction as Beneatha watches her future slip away is one of the most powerful moments in the play. Alison Sealy-Smith plays Lena Younger with a rich sense of history, a strong, familiar matriarchal personality, and compelling distinct, complex, relationships with her family and to the world around her. Together, they are truly amazing and exciting to watch.
Alison Sealy-Smith mentioned how exciting it was to be performing A Raisin in the Sun while America voted in its first African American President. She said that she had been thinking about Michelle Obama, who was born in Chicago, in a neighborhood similar to the fictional Younger family, and that she could be the child Ruth Younger was carrying in the play. The First Lady of the United States of America was born into a time and place and family like this one. If that’s not relevance, I don’t know what is.
It also makes me want to stand up and cheer. And so did this play.
A Raisin in the Sun plays until Sunday, November 15th, 2008. Soulpepper Theatre. Young Centre for the Performing Arts. 55 Mill Street, Building 49, Toronto, Ontario. For tickets call 416-866-8666 or visit their website at http://www.soulpepper.ca/.

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