“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
It’s 1959, the American dream is a lie and within the confines of our set, a small room in Southside Chicago our family wait for their bitter-sweet slice of good fortune: the insurance money from the death of the patriarch of the family. It is the family’s only chance, because in the USA hard work certainly hasn’t paid off. For Walter Lee (Ashley Zhangazha), the chauffeur son, the tension is unbearable. Lorraine Hansberry makes this character suffer the most loudly; he is less philosophical than the women (his wife, mother and sister) and much more angry. As a black man, the entitlement that comes with his gender in a patriarchal society is rubbed in his face more acutely by the relentless racism he faces. Walter starts the play by blaming his women for his failure, complaining that, “We are one group of men tied to women with small minds”. He tragically views financial success as the key to empowerment and his wife, Ruth (Alisha Bailey), bears the brunt of his frustration.
Dreams are synonymous with desperation. It is no shock that the American Dream does not exist for this family. They live with the depressing, heavy reality that, “He was a fine man – just could never catch up with his dreams that’s all.” Hansberry seems to suggest that embracing the values of the American Dream seems not only an exercise in futility for black America but an assimilation that merely enables and legitimises the denial of moral responsibility for the enslavement of black people and, of course, its continuing legacy. For Capitalism to work, someone has to stay at the bottom. It is significant that in 1959, in an urban setting, three out of the four adult characters are in domestic servitude.
Hansberry sees something epic in families. It’s a place for big emotions at the best of times and her writing sharply observes the power plays, petty cruelties, humour and deep kindnesses that exist in families. She also draws deftly the women characters, smashing narrative clichés through her writing of the three female roles. Bound by their race as well as their gender, there is no real competition between the women. The matriarch treats her two children equally and her daughter’s desire to be a doctor is not an issue beyond practicalities. In fact, Beneatha’s character is not the studious stereotype, but quick witted and the provider of much of the play’s lighter moments. Wokoma’s characterisation gives us all of Benetha’s complexity, intelligence and determination with the sense of humour and playfulness that makes her seem like a real person, not a character in a play.
Dawn Walton’s production is agitated, the characters can’t sit still in this tiny set. They move and try to create the illusion that they have more space than there is. It feels tiring to watch – but you get the sense the production is saying: “You try living it.” It’s a dance of survival that Ruth’s relentless ironing underlines. The cooking smells fill the space and we are in no doubt that what is happening on stage is real. Angela Winter as Lena Younger, the mother, is exceptional. Her characterisation is so rich, so nuanced, she squeezes every ounce of pathos, humour and tragedy that there is. Lena, the mother, provides the wisdom of the past that gives her children the integrity to carry on. She talks of defiance, dignity and love. It is inspirational and horrifying at the same time. Last night in Ipswich, many stood to applaud this production, clearly moved by what they had seen and heard. Hansberry’s play has the power to speak through the years to an audience of today. In fact her messages and questions about racism, gender and social justice feel more urgent than ever.
This play is easily equal to, and arguably better, than some produced by her white male contemporaries, such as Miller or Williams. With so much media attention on issues of diversity, Eclipse’s production is clearly a timely revival, along with the National Theatre staging of Les Blancs, another Hansberry play, in March.
Hopefully, Hansberry’s time has come.
A Raisin in the Sun was on at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich. Click here for more of their programme.