A Raisin in the Sun
- Written by Lorraine Hansberry
- Directed by Weyni Mengesha
- Starring Alison Sealy-Smith
- At the Young Centre in Toronto
The Youngers are back at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. The African-American family nearly torn apart by a $10,000 life-insurance policy in Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 classic, A Raisin in the Sun, made their first appearance here as part of Soulpepper's 2008 season. Now, Weyni Mengesha's engrossing, award-winning production has returned two years later.
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
1. The space. The Youngers have migrated from the 425-seat Baillie Theatre into the 250-seat Michael Young Theatre for this remount. And in the smaller space, the cramped conditions in which the Youngers live - five family members spanning three generations with two bedrooms - are more palpable; how that claustrophobic situation fuels the conflict is clearer. Designer Scott Reid has skillfully adapted his set, which lets us peek into the rest of this Southside Chicago apartment block; his raked stage is more vertiginous than ever.
2. Beneatha. Cara Ricketts previously played the precocious Younger sister, who wants to use her father's life-insurance money for medical school, with a strong sense of superiority and sizzling sex appeal. So, newcomer Bahia Watson has high high heels to fill. What she brings to the role is youth and vulnerability; her Beneatha is less glamorous and isn't as sure of herself as she pretends. While her performance has less pizzazz, it may actually suit the production better, helping to shift focus back to Walter Lee and Mama.
3. Walter Lee. Charles Officer is still playing the Younger brother, who wants to use the money to open a liquor store. He seems to have toned down his character's rage and substituted dead-eyed depression. This makes his character more sympathetic and understandable - and less of the stereotype of the angry black man - but some of the pyrotechnics of his prior performance are missed.
4. The times. Mengesha's production was last performed as Barack Obama was on the way to the White House. Now that the great elation of that occasion has been drowned out by Tea Party howls, what the Nigerian character Asagai (the marvellous Awaovieyi Agie) has to say about the reality of change emerges as the key speech. "At times it will seem that nothing changes at all… and then again… the sudden dramatic events which make history leap into the future," he tells Beneatha. "And then quiet again. Retrogression even. Guns, murder, revolution. And I even will have moments when I wonder if the quiet was not better than all that death and hatred. But I will look about my village at the illiteracy and disease and ignorance and I will not wonder long."
5. The times, part II. With Obamamania hushed, A Raisin in the Sun seems less an African-American story than an archetypal (im)migrant family story. Canadians of all colours will recognize the generation gap between matriarch Lena, who moved from the South to Chicago and found a better life, and her children, Walter and Beneatha, who want more than just better.
WHAT HASN'T CHANGED?
1. Alison Sealy-Smith. This time around, I gained a greater appreciation for the depth in her Dora-winning performance as the proud and imperfect Lena. The technical proficiency of her immersion in the part is particularly impressive: While other actors in this production failed to convince me that they were actually brushing their hair or searching for 50 cents in their pocket, every time Sealy-Smith's Lena arrived in the apartment out of breath from climbing several flights of stairs, I truly forgot she was just taking a few steps in from the wings.
2. Hansberry's unique accomplishment. A Raisin in the Sun does not, at first glance, seem original in either form or content: It's a well-made family drama with a plot that, like almost all great American plays, pivots around real estate and/or an insurance policy. (See Arthur Miller's Death of Salesman, opening at Soulpepper later this week.) What is less obviously visible from 50 years on is one of the show's unique aspects: Just as the Youngers move into an all-white neighbourhood in the play, so Hansberry moved African-American characters into a theatrical space previously occupied only by white characters. The play, remarkably, actually did what it portrayed; it was the change it dramatized.
3. Mengesha's direction. While the performers took a while to find their feet this time around, the story of Hansberry's show couldn't have been clearer - and narrative clarity is an underrated directorial asset. My revisit to the Youngers has only whetted my appetite to see what Mengesha does with Michel Tremblay's Hosanna at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival next year.
A Raisin in the Sun runs until Nov. 13.