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Fresh Fruit

Time Hasn't Withered Raisin's Dramatic Power

Richard Anderson
Linda Powell and Keith Glover as Ruth and Walter Lee Younger
Linda Powell, Robert M. Harley, and Trezana Beverley as Ruth,Travis, and Lena (Mama) Younger

By Jack Purdy | Posted 11/28/2001

A Raisin in the Sun

Lorraine Hansberry

Groundbreaking theatrical works often don't age terribly well. Can anyone today sit through, say, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger without wondering what the hell all the fuss was about back in the 1950s? So seeing A Raisin in the Sun, another Important Work from that decade, at Center Stage is truly a revelation. The play retains all the power and originality it had in 1959 because the author, Lorraine Hansberry, built a work that shifts with the times rather than being trapped in the amber of the Eisenhower years.

The Younger family of Chicago is faced with a momentous decision--what to do with the $10,000 life-insurance payout due for the recent death of Big Walter, the family patriarch. Lena "Mama" Younger (Trezana Beverly), Big Walter's widow, craves a move out of the family's cramped apartment with its communal bathroom. Her daughter, Beneatha (Tracie Thomas), wants some of the money for medical school. Her daughter-in-law, Ruth (Linda Powell), wants to keep peace in the family while dealing with a serious problem of her own. Ruth's husband and Lena's son, Walter Lee (Keith Glover), dreams of being a big success in business so he can finally quit wearing his chauffeur's cap and bowing to white people.

That was the revolutionary part of A Raisin in the Sun 40-plus years ago. Hansberry, born of a well-to-do African-American family in Chicago, created an archetypal "kitchen sink" play about a family of all-American strivers--who were black. The work is often summarized as being about the Youngers buying a house in an all-white neighborhood, but that's far too simple. It's a play about people longing for that mythical somewhere--that Big Rock Candy Mountain--where everything will finally be OK.

The character of Walter Lee Younger personifies both this restless striving and the play's ability to change with the times. He's a working-class guy who wants much more and thinks that, if he only gets a break, his native wit will see him through. He's also a drinker, a guy who'll rant about "colored women" not backing up their men, and a chump capable of a huge act of betrayal. In 1959, this made Sidney Poitier, the original Walter Lee and a civil-rights activist, very nervous. Walter Lee was anything but politically correct for the times, when the noble "good Negro" was the face the movement wanted to show the nation. But then, as now, Walter Lee isn't a bad guy--he's Ralph Kramden on a more exalted level. Glover captures all of Walter's "little man" frustrations, which is remarkable, given the actor's Herculean physique.

Beneatha, brought to vibrant life by Baltimore native Thomas, is the play's most difficult role, as she is obviously Hansberry's analog and the vehicle through which the author tried to work out her own attitudes toward nappy hair, African consciousness, and a variety of other cultural questions. In truth, much of this could have been pruned without harming the core drama. Yet to watch Hansberry, then only 29, work through issues that wouldn't arise publicly in the African-American community for years to come is fascinating to watch.

The heart of the play, though, is Lena Younger, and Beverly skillfully walks a tightrope, remaining sympathetic while showing how Mama's tyrannical rule over the household has unmanned her son. Powell gives Ruth, a thoroughly good woman caught in the middle of a warring family, the steely center she needs.

Langston Hughes asked if "a dream deferred" would "dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?" Forty-two years after its premiere, the play that took its title from Hughes' words still bursts drama, candor, and freshness.

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