Saturday, January 13, 2018

Dreams deferred in a classic representation: IRT opens 2018 with 'A Raisin in the Sun'

It's hard not to wince a little at a common rhetorical flourish of well-meaning politicians in response to the latest racist outrage in word or deed: "That's not who we are."

Well, now that everyone agrees that the last presidential administration, through no fault of its own, didn't herald a "post-racial society," maybe we can also concede that American racial attitudes across the spectrum are indeed part of who we are. The regrettable portion of those attitudes — attitudes that impede progress toward justice and peace — are not who we should be, hopefully not even who we want to be.

But the reality is undeniable, and that's part of what makes "A Raisin in the Sun" a play worth producing in 2018. The opening-night performance Friday at Indiana Repertory Theatre proved the point upon our pulses, upon our hearts. Displaying incisive precocity, Lorraine Hansberry larded her family drama with many strong hints of the way things ought to be in America of the late 1950s.

Yet she finally comes down on the side of laying the situation out for us in all its complexity. She spares little in her examination of black aspirations and illusions as well as the blocking effects of white racism. Long ago, Thornton Wilder said in his Paris Review interview something that can be applied to Hansberry's achievement: "The theater is supremely fitted to say: 'Behold! These things are.' Yet most dramatists employ it to say: 'This moral truth can be learned from beholding this action.'"

"A Raisin in the Sun" essentially forces audiences to face what the Younger family will face in its hard-won escape from the Chicago ghetto, despite Walter Lee Younger's assertion of his manhood at the play's end. What keeps the family's dreams intact is inspiring, but our minds race forward to the challenges, some of them internal, that will remain with the Youngers after they move. At the same time, the play never turns its back on moral truths.

Walter Lee Younger explains his dreams of a better life to his son.
Sensing that Wilder wanted to reject the kind of drama that proposes such truths, his interviewer asked if drama should thus be art for art's sake. "Experience for experience's sake — rather than moral improvement's sake," the playwright-novelist retorted.

"A Raisin in the Sun" offers a clear-eyed view of experience for multitudes in what has been called the most segregated city in the northern United States. Open housing may have weakened some of the barriers by now, but "moral improvement" on either side of the racial divide remains an open question. Experience for experience's sake is what Hansberry confronts us with.

The IRT's production of "A Raisin in the Sun," directed by Timothy Douglas, makes its main characters representative of African-American experience while not turning them into allegorical figures. Tony Cisek's set honors the particulars of one family's life, while its background of shadowy stairways suggests both paths to elsewhere and an elaborate treadmill — like the architectural conundrums in the art of Piranesi or Escher.

 Chik√© Johnson as Walter Lee, bedeviled by his subordinate position at home and at work, reflected the man's passionate imagination, a quality that sometimes plays hob with judgment and responsibility. He expressed the conflicting forces within Walter Lee steadily — forces that are for the time being reconciled in the difficult choice he makes for his family in the last scene.

Against the odds, Lena keeps the family centered.
The fact that he isn't the "head of the household" is the source of the play's titanic tug of war between him and his mother, Lena, the tenant of record in a crowded apartment. which also includes Walter's feisty younger sister, Beneatha; his wife, Ruth, and their 10-year-old son, Travis. Quite a crew to function as a role model for! No wonder that the pressure causes him to go off the rails before he digs down to find his spiritual center.

Kim Staunton's performance had an easy mastery about it. Her Lena is no stolid "earth mother" type; the despair that overcomes her briefly was infused with energy Friday. She's formidable in her own way, a picture of indomitability. Physically, she has a bit of matronly heft, but moves like a woman used to the hard work she's had to do all her life and ready for more. She's the keeper of the family flame, as well as of a scraggly potted plant that symbolizes her dogged optimism. There are some scenes in which Lena holds sway while seated, and it's to Staunton's credit that she projects the same air of command and moral consistency whether or not she's standing.

As Ruth, Dorcas Sowunmi rightly paid most of the school-of-hard-knocks tuition the Youngers seem to owe forever. Beneatha represented one kind of lofty escape from those realities in Stori Ayers' performance. She reflected it in the character's professional ambitions, her flighty range of hobbies, and her Afrocentrism.

Beneatha shares her brother's tendency to construct a rich fantasy life, which complicates her relationships with two men: the dicty George Murchison, heir to a ghetto fortune, and the brilliant Nigerian student Joseph Asagai, from whose mouth come Hansberry's juiciest satirical thrusts at African-American life. These minor but crucial roles were well-filled by Jordan Bellow and Elisha Lawson, respectively.

Completing the Younger family circle is Travis (Lex Lumpkin). Some of his vocal delivery seemed flat and studied, but that's in comparison to the naturalness and communicative force of his facial expressions and mannerisms. When he shoots a skeptical look at something his father says, it both hits its mark and flies across the theater.

The Youngers meet Mr. Lindner, who brings an offer from their prospective new neighbors.
The climax of Friday's performance also foreshadowed Walter Lee's change of heart about how to react to a neighborhood association's attempt to keep the Youngers from moving in. Johnson captured  his character's frenzied demonstration of the groveling gratitude he planned to exhibit for the promised bribe. You felt in this scene the long history of blacks' adopting attitudes of subservience for both the entertainment of whites and survival among them.

I liked the chances that Johnson took making the scene resemble overacting, because it paradoxically became all the more authentic. He indicated that Walter Lee was both sincere in his grotesque act and capable of seeing how ridiculous it was: he was pointing the way toward freedom even as he seemed to be acknowledging the strength of his shackles. This is what Johnson's performance underlined: The shame and humiliation the United States has visited upon minorities definitely belong to "who we are," but so does the promise of something better for everyone.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]