A black President may have been a fanciful notion when Lorraine Hansberry wrote A Raisin In The Sun, but it’s illuminating to reflect on how pertinent her play still is, even as we reach the end of Barack Obama’s second term in office. For Hansberry’s seminal work – the first play written by a black woman to be performed on Broadway – touches on the class divide just as much as the racial one, and this revival from Eclipse Theatre highlights how the problems of 1959 are eerily similar to those we face in 2016.
It’s a necessarily claustrophobic play, set entirely in the cramped apartment where the Youngers live on the south side of Chicago. You can almost feel the walls closing in as the pressure to leave the south side becomes more intense. The Youngers are a black family of three generations, Walter and Ruth sharing the home with Walter’s mother Lena and his sister Beneatha. There’s so little room that their ten year old son Travis sleeps on the sofa. Walter works as a chauffeur but dreams of a better life, while Beneatha is being courted and charmed by two men with very different outlooks on life.
An escape route is provided in the form of a $10,000 life insurance cheque following Walter’s father’s death – yet tensions arise in the family over the best way to spend it. It’s here that Hansberry’s script is so strong: Walter sees a partnership in a liquor store, while Lena wants to buy a house in a predominately white neighbourhood. It’s the latter prospect that leads to the pivotal event of the play: a visit from Mr Linder, a representative of the ironically named “welcoming committee” who want to buy the house from them, simply to prevent a black family from moving in.
This scene cuts like a knife – until now, there’s been wry musings on the class structure and the extent to which black people feel that they should assimilate into American culture, but it’s the arrival of the play’s sole white character which symbolises the real problems that the Youngers face. Linder is all obsequious charm, but his racism is thinly disguised: it’s there in the way he presumes to direct the dialogue and in his insidious, repeated use of the phrase “you people”. It’s a skilfully written and performed scene, which leaves you breathless with anger.
Director Dawn Walton wisely keeps the focus on Hansberry’s timeless script – after all, there’s no real need for bells and whistles when the characters are this strongly drawn. She’s served well by an excellent cast: Ashley Zhangazha, returning to the theatre where he made such a strong impression as Ross in Macbeth a few years ago, is an excellent Walter – you can almost see the tension generated by the pressure to better himself eating him up from the inside. Susan Wokoma has a lovely light comic touch as Beneatha, while Angela Wynter exudes quiet dignity as the matriarchal Lena.
At times, especially towards the end, some may find it becomes a bit too overwrought, and the energy sometimes start to flag over what is a reasonably long running time. Yet this is a play with many scenes that stick long in the memory – the aforementioned visit from Mr Linder, a debate on racial assimilation between Beneatha and her suitor Joseph Asaagai, and a joyous slice of dancing to African tribal music. Most of all, this is a play about dreams and aspiration – Walter’s yearning for a better life for his family, Beneatha’s ambition to be a doctor – and how those dreams can be so difficult to fulfill, even in the mythical Land of the Free.
A Raisin In The Sun is a play that’s probably better known in the United States than it is in the UK – hopefully, as Eclipse tour this production around the country over the next few weeks, a whole new audience will have the chance to discover this classic of our times.
A Raisin in the Sun is on in Sheffield until 13th February 2016 (and then touring). Click here for tickets.