Sunday, 28 February 2016

A Raisin in the Sun

At the centre of Western theatre is the family. The tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus are essentially family dramas, and the same is true of most of Shakespeare, the Jacobean canon and the twentieth century too: Shaw, Rattigan, Osborne, Wesker, Pinter, Miller... Again and again a family, with is tensions, fractures and subterranean bonds, serves as a distillation of wider issues. Great reckonings in small rooms. In Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, it is the black family of the Youngers whose journey we share for the two hours traffic of the stage; and, through them, we come to learn something of the situation of black people at that point in history, relegated by reason of their colour to an inferior status, on the margins of respectable white society in late fifties America: " Never before, in the entire history of theatre, has so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on the stage" said writer James Baldwin. The Youngers live in a cramped rented apartment in Chicago in 1959: matriarch Lena, son Walter, his sister Beneatha, wife Ruth and son Travis, who has to sleep on the couch. Walter is a chauffeur with dreams of going into business, Ruth does occasional household work while Beneatha has aspirations to train as a doctor, but appears to be drifting from one hobby to another and is in the grip of an identity crisis. A life insurance policy on Lena's husband comes through, and the action of the play is concerned with the family's decisions on what to do with this money.

Over the evening, I felt a growing awareness of the nature of the Youngers' condition. Beneatha's boyfriends represent - perhaps a little obviously - the avenues available to her: return to Africa and the adoption of a clear ancestral identity; or assimilation into modern American life. Her intellectual questioning attitude leads her into trouble with her mother and her men. The dangers of free-thinking youth is not a race-restricted problem, needless to say. Meanwhile Walter is driven to distraction by his condition of servitude but lacks the savviness and education needed to make a go of business. His lack of preparation and tendency to fantasise make him dangerously vulnerable to exploitation. When Lena spends a portion of the insurance money on a down payment for a house, it looks as though a door has been opened for the Youngers. But the house is in a white neighbourhood, and the purchase leads to a visit from a representative of the 'Clayborne Park' community attempting to buy them out. 'Racial prejudice doesn't come into it,' of course.

It was a delight to see a traditional well-made play, introducing the characters then setting the spinning wheel going and leading us through their purgatory to a fateful decision, which takes them into a future full of risk - including, it is broadly hinted, actual physical risk. Hansberry wrote Raisin at the young age of 28 and it was, apparently, the first play by a black writer on Broadway, where it was produced in 1959. At that point, the question of what would happen to the Youngers after the final curtain was a question to the audience. Not that it has gone away, of course. Eclipse Theatre Company, who are taking their fine production on tour, is committed to drama and theatre-based projects which raise awareness of inequality and other race-related issues. Uneasily, I recalled I had been at a rather grand establishment dinner the evening before and I don't remember seeing a single black face there. And then there is the furore over this year's Oscars... So the work of Eclipse Company and other similar outfits is as necessary as ever.

This production was satisfyingly true to the work's origins: a drab single-room set, simple lighting plot, clear characterisation and full-blooded attack on the climactic speeches which may seem a little melodramatic now, but were part of the dramatic rhetoric of the time. It was entirely respectful to the aesthetics of the work, as conceived by the author. No production razzmatazz or modernising was needed to help us understand or feel the ideas and passions of the play. I must say it came as a refreshing relief after the National's ostentatiously lavish As You Like It to be reminded what can be done with a standard fourth wall set-up without a battery of special effects.  The play itself is a tremendous work of social theatre: Walter Younger should be as well-known to English audiences as Willy Loman. Indeed they are similar in several ways: dreamers, victims of society but with enough flaws to make us edgy and stop the flow of easy sentiment. The whole ensemble worked beautifully together to create a gripping and moving evening of theatre. Fine work from the smaller parts along with the leads. This was another great night at the Nuffield, Southampton. We feel so lucky to be within easy distance of this venue, showing some of the best work currently being done on the British stage. It brought back memories of Jacobs-Jenkins Neighbors, another remarkable play about the black experience in America, which I also saw at the Nuffield. If you happen to come on this post and are considering getting a ticket to A Raisin in the Sun, don't hesitate!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi estic d'acord.