Sunday, October 16, 2016

Play: Classic

A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, directed by Timothy McCuen Piggee, Seattle Repertory Theatre, through Oct. 30

The Seattle Rep is back in season with a strong, long, classic play of the What-Theatre-Used-to-Be-Like type. Raisin played Broadway in 1959 and changed the demeanor (and skin tone) of American Theatre forever and for the better.

The story is that of the Younger clan, cooped up in a tight apartment on the Chicago South Side. Grandmother Lena (Denise Burse) runs the household, which includes her daughter Beneatha (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako), her son Walter (Richard Prioleau) and his tired wife Ruth (Mia Ellis)  and their son Travis (Two young actors for this role - Catalino Manalang for our show). Lena's husband has died and Lena is getting the insurance money. What to do with the money? She's unsure, Beneatha, who is studying to be a doctor, says it is her decision, Walter wants the money to buy a liquor store with two streetwise pals.

Walter Lee Travis is the pivot of the play - he's a man-child who has worked all his life and feels this is his last chance to get ahead. He's a chauffeur who originally thought moving in with his folks years ago with his new bride was a temporary thing. They have been been there ever since, their son sleeping on living room sofa, his mother running the roost. Walter's male pride rubs up against everyone in his frustration and desire to give his son a better life. Lena is dubious about his scheme, which he takes it as a personal affront, a lack of faith. He bristles and growls and finally is given his chance.

And he (spoilers) blows it, and a second chance to redeem himself financially, to dig himself out of the hole, involves losing a bit of his soul and his respect. And that is the center of the play.

The part that everyone knows about the play (Lena decides to use part of the insurance money to buy a house in the white suburbs) is secondary, and interacts late in the play as Walter's potential lifeline. It could have been something else and the play's arc could remain intact, but it is stronger and deeper for the question of pressing forward, despite loss, into a brave new world.

The "B-Story" of Beneatha and her two suitors, the assimilated Murchison (Tre Cotten) and the nativist Asagi (Ricardy Charles Fabre), spools out with echoes that are responsive today, Like her elder brother, she is trying to grow up, but she is flighty and unsettled. Even with her resolution at the end of the play, you wonder if she can stick it through.

The actors are great. Prioleau growls, blusters, and mocks as Walter Lee. Beneatha (no punches pulled with that name) is by turns coquettish and serious. Lena is the rock. Ruth is just worn down trying to keep it all together. Charles Legget as Lindner, representing the Clybourne neighborhood association, wanders into all this as the white guy sure that he's the hero of the piece, and is totally befuddled when he's completely wrong.

The play is almost 60 years old, and the question is - does it all hold up? Yeah, moreso than ever. It is about race in a way that is sadly very pertinent today, where an architect in Seattle has trouble cashing her paycheck because she is an African-American woman. The tropes may feel very much like the storyline of a Norman Lear show in the early 70s (when TV started to recognize the African American community as well), and are still accurate for the modern period.

But it is the strength of the writing that pulls all of this together. A couple of years ago, the Rep put on Clybourne Park, which was a prequel/sequel that told the story of the household that sold the property to Lena Travis (first act), and the people who bought it years later (second act). At the time I wondered if it would work for the first act of Clybourne, then Raisin, then the second act of Clybourne. It wouldn't. The strength and natural language of Raisin would overshadow Clybourne Park, revealing it as a shallow thing in comparrison.

Now, the title comes from a poem by Langston Hughes - Harlem, from a larger cycle of poetry. Most people know the opening lines, but few know how it ends, and its pacing parallels that of the play. Go read it here.

And yes, after almost 60 years, it is a play worth remembering, engaging through its three-hour-and- change running time. Check it out.

More later,