Saturday, April 26, 2014

Cloverdale Playhouse: "A Raisin in the Sun"

Full Disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

Well-earned cheers resounded at the curtain call of The Cloverdale Playhouse's opening night performance of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry's landmark 1959 play that reminds us of the racial divide that unfortunately is still too much in evidence via the hateful diatribes in today's news and social media.

But director Greg Thornton and his remarkable ensemble actors know that there is a lot more to it than race. Yes, the Younger family have struggled and are near the end of their endurance; yet, their attempts to break out of the control of the white man, and to do so with dignity, is perhaps their greatest achievement.

Ms. Hansberry's title is inspired by the Langston Hughes poem: "Harlem" or "A Dream Deferred":

"What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore --
and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over --
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

And each of the play's major characters has a dream of some sort that has been put on hold because of their circumstances: they are Black, hardworking people living together in a cramped apartment and locked into menial jobs with little hope of advancement; and their dreams might have a chance if the $10,000 insurance check due to Lena [Yvette Jones-Smedley] on the death of her husband is put to good use.

Lena's son Walter Lee [William Allen III] is a chauffeur who dreams of making it big by investing in a liquor business with some no-account friends; his wife Ruth [Christina Okolo] takes in laundry to help support their growing family -- young Travis [Marlo Pickett], and another child on the way -- and dreams of better days with a family free from discord.

Lena's daughter Beneatha [Jasmine Gatewood], a university student who dreams of becoming a doctor, is enthusiastically pursuing her African roots with the help of Nigerian fellow student and admirer Joseph Asagai [Christopher M. Lindsay], and is also being courted by rich George Murchison [Bruce S. Toney]; each of her suitors' chauvinistic attitudes seek to keep her in a subservient status, one which she, like her brother Walter Lee, cannot abide.

All the action takes place in the Younger's apartment, where close family ties are tested each day. It is clear that they love one another, but with five people sharing the space [Travis sleeps on the living room sofa] and sharing a bathroom with other tenants in their building, privacy is non-existent, misunderstandings occur, tempers flare up, and the scrutiny of family members is ever present. 

There is more at risk when the money marriage and to family. So when Lena uses some of the money to put a down-payment on a house in Clybourne Park, an all white neighborhood, to start a new life and save her family, Walter Lee is devastated and feels emasculated by his mother's determination. -- And it is up to Lena to restore his manhood through trusting him with the rest of the cash, a test that is made more significant when Walter Lee has to decide in front of his young son whether to accept a buy-out offer from Karl Lindner [John McWilliams], the spokesman for the Clybourne Park Improvement Association's "Welcoming Committee", to keep Blacks out of their neighborhood.

Mike Winkelman's detailed set provides a stultifying atmosphere that seems to entrap the family within its worn and stained walls, the lone window shedding only dim light onto Lena's small plant, the only other living thing beyond family that she ministers to, and which reflects their position: under Lena's caring hands, the plant and her family manage to survive.

Lena is the strength of the family, and under Ms. Jones-Smedley's carefully nuanced portrayal, she nurtures, cajoles, and deeply loves her family, taking time to treat each one with special attention honestly and with controlled passion. She imbues the part with such finesse that appears so natural, that audiences are never in doubt that this is a real woman who others rely on, though sometimes reluctantly.

Beneatha's complexity, her adolescent fickleness, is infuriating to others, but Ms. Gatewood throws herself into the role -- sometimes angrily, sometimes petulantly, sometimes naively, and always persuasively. 

Mr. Allen depicts Walter Lee's frustrations with conviction; these are made even more compelling through the scenes in which his defenses are down and he is able to express his love for each of the other family members with exuberant freedom and laughter and playfulness.

Perhaps Walter Lee's most complex relationship is with Ruth, and Ms. Okolo is a study in understatement. Desperately wanting to restore the closeness in their marriage, and even contemplating an abortion to avoid more financial demands on an already stretched budget, Ms. Okolo often remains in the background, but contributes to every scene by listening and reacting in subtle ways that communicate volumes more than mere words. Admirable work here.

The supporting players, including Derek S. Franklin as Walter Lee's friend Bobo who reluctantly brings news that their "business partner" absconded with the money, bring the outside world into the little apartment; but what happens to the family within it is of the utmost significance.

The Younger family actors seem so comfortable with one another, that it seems that audiences are eavesdropping on their private conversations and conflicts. -- Mr. Thornton's strong directorial hand allows a deliberately slow pace to add credence to their dilemmas, and by gradually illuminating them, we are able to go along for the ride. A ride towards redemption. A ride that offers possibilities. A ride of laughter and tears, of frustrations and joy, of hope and of love. And it is more than worth it.


The next production at The Cloverdale Playhouse was chosen as a companion piece to A Raisin in the Sun. Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning Clybourne Park takes place in the house the Younger family move to at the end of A Raisin in the Sun in 1959, and again fifty years later as the neighborhood is once again undergoing change. -- It will be performed from June 19-29.