After ambitious but disappointing Broadway revivals of 1776 and Death of a Salesman I braced myself for more of the same with the Off Broadway redo of A Raisin in the Sun, at the Public. Worse, actually–director Robert O’Hara did well by the contemporary Slave Play but last season’s production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night was a disaster. If Eugene O’Neill’s pitiless production couldn’t survive such harsh treatment, what chance did Lorraine Hansberry’s lyrical 1959 masterpiece have?
O’Hara’s take on the play–the first by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway, and Hansberry’s signature work before her death at age 34 in 1965–is for a long while straightforward, and sturdy. But we notice certain emphases. The Younger family’s South Side of Chicago apartment, from which the patriarch’s recent death and subsequent $10,000 life insurance check promise an escape from, is more decrepit than usual, a rat-trap so horrid you can visualize the unseen roaches scurrying underfoot. We can’t help but notice the father’s ghost, who materializes on the premises in a few scenes. And his son Walter Lee (Francois Battiste), the protagonist of the story, seethes with rage and disappointment, practically stalking his ten-year-old son Travis (Toussaint Battiste, the actor’s child) and the three women in the confines of his life, mother Lena (Tonya Pinkins), who plans to buy a new house with the money, and pregnant wife Ruth (Mandi Masden) and studios sister Beneatha (Paige Gilbert), who nurse their own hopes. Undone by his busted dreams Walter Lee is all but a feral Jekyll and Hyde figure, making noisy love to Ruth in one scene (not in Hansberry’s original) then slapping her in another. The Walter Lees of Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington in past stage and screen portrayals he’s not.
The second act lays bare O’Hara’s intentions. After Lena announces that she’s moving her family to the white neighborhood of Clybourne Park with some of the money the director restores a scene Hansberry dropped from the play due to time constraints. (It’s still a well-paced three hours.) In it nosy neighbor Mrs. Johnson drops by to pour cold water over the plan to relocate, saying that assimilation will never work. It’s a somewhat comic scene, broadly played by Perri Gaffney, but with a sharp edge to it, reinforced by the appearance of would-be white neighbor Karl Linder (really broadly played by Jesse Pennington, all but insectoid) who tries to bribe the Youngers into staying put.
From here it helps to know that O’Hara has laced the show with elements of Hansberry’s autobiography, which the Playbill addresses. Her landlord father broke up apartments into the exact sort of places the Youngers make do in, and was also active in equal rights campaigns; she was a lesbian when that culture was forced underground; she was a Marxist and communist, which has never been above ground in this country. For all the play’s lyricism and optimism this is beneath its surface a story of a house divided, and while (spoilers) Walter Lee as always redeems himself toward the end it’s not before he attacks the audience in a blistering direct-address monologue. The near-subliminal shocker at the close forces us to confront a devastating truth, that Mrs. Johnson and the wilder Walter are right, and that the Youngers have exchanged one battlefield for another. (Recall that the 2010 Tony Award winner Clybourne Park begins just before they’re moving into their new home, upsetting the “neighborhood watch.”)
If you’ve never seen A Raisin in the Sun this isn’t the place to start (that might be the faithful 1961 film adaptation or the TV movie of the superlative 2004 Broadway revival). You need to see it “clean” before being able to appreciate how O’Hara has dirtied it, revealing cracks that are more pertinent than ever. I had a hard time with the elder Battiste, who seems unworthy of the family around him, but O’Hara has made a deliberately off-putting choice and the actor commits to it. His performance is offset by the warmth of the three women, all beautifully played, which O’Hara hasn’t done anything to cool. And the play retains the sharp exchanges about equality and progress Beneatha has with her two suitors, the wealthy, assimilated George (Mister Fitzgerald) and Nigerian student Joseph (John Clay III). Some will resent that O’Hara has gone much farther with the material, that he’s let this Raisin incinerate in the sun. But I was riveted, and Clint Ramos’ set, Alex Jainchill’s lighting, and Elisheba Ittoops’s sound design are firmly joined to the concept. This take blisters and bleeds, and not for nothing is there a scar and thorns running through the title of the program.