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?
The current Soulpepper production of Lorraine Hansberrry’s acclaimed A Raisin In The Sun is an emotionally charged rendition of an historic script that examines American race politics through the gaze of a struggling black family on the threshold of moving to a white middle-class neighbourhood in Chicago. The drama unfolds through a complex series of relationships between mother and son, daughter and suitors, husband and wife. This triumvirate of social interaction manages, in Hansberry’s intricately developed text, to feature broad historical issues ranging from African/American history as it relates to inter-cultural generational experience from Nigeria to the U.S., as well as the ways in which racism and real estate become entangled within vicious circles of oppressive class-based sentiments.
The cast, led by Alison Sealy-Smith as Lena Younger, the matriarch struggling to do the right thing with her late husband’s substantial insurance policy, presents a lively yet frequently uneven production that resonates with subtle tragic-comic overtones expertly crafted into the script. Sealy-Smith shines as the steadfast mother, surrounded by a supporting cast that falters from time to time through an uneven emotional range that makes some of the social realism a little hard to fathom. Bahia Watson as Beneatha Younger, skillfully portrays the intelligence and vivacity necessary to the role, yet her physicality and vocal ability frequently verge on the melodramatic. This works well in certain physical scenes but becomes somewhat awkward when the realism turns to dialogue requiring more nuanced interaction. Similarly, Charles Officer’s Walter Lee Younger, although a very strong and credible son to Sealy-Smith's powerful mother, lapses into moments of awkwardness that don’t quite live up to his otherwise powerful, smouldering persona. Barbara Barnes-Hopkins gives a surprising and expertly comic cameo as Mrs. Johnson as she draws on skillfully and delicately managed gestural nuance in order to reveal Hansberry’s concerns over particular responses to stereotypes projected onto black communities of the time.
Although uneven at times, the ensemble brings Hansberry’s work to life with rich layers of emotional intensity. Based on an incident experienced by her and her family in 1940 when they won the right to a day in court regarding the purchase of a new home in a white neighbourhood , the playwright wrote about this formative event in her book To Be Young, Gifted, and Black:
"25 years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation's ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house… My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court."
The Soulpepper production has been held over until November 20th and is a crowd- pleasing family saga that brings an iconic script to a Toronto stage for the second time in the past two years. The 2008 production won Sealy-Smith a Dora award for outstanding performance by a female in a principal role. The resonant, timeless strength of A Raisin In The Sun play can still be seen in 2010 as a production of Clybourne Park, a contemporary response to Hansberry’s play, opened at Playwright’s Horizon in New York last February with a subsequent production at London’s Royal Court Theatre.