Like many people, I first encountered Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in a high school English class. Unfortunately, because my high school was in the almost exclusively white town of Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, my knowledge of white flight and racial tension was limited, and the magnitude of the text was lost on me.
Watching A Raisin in the Sun nearly a decade later at the Geva Theatre in Rochester, I have a much clearer understanding of the struggle of the Youngers to get out of the impoverished apartment they’ve occupied for several decades in inner city, 1950s Chicago.
The set design of the apartment made good use of stage space, although the dilapidation may have been a little beyond plausible. Designer Clint Ramos' set seems more to mimic the state of the apartment in the characters' minds - a half-crumbled wall and worn furniture give the apartment the feel of a haunted house.
Adding to that supernatural, almost metaphysical interpretation of the design was Director Robert O’Hara’s decision to include scenes typically cut from performances featuring Big Walter, the recently deceased patriarch of the Younger family. Although Big Walter has no lines, O’Hara manages to make good use of him with blue filtered spotlights and a smoke machine. The effect is fitting; Big Walter has the appearance of a spectre that continues to haunt the family’s run-down apartment
Stellar performances by the cast, especially Lynda Gravátt as matriarch Lena Younger, grease the wheels for this leap in imagination. Although Lena appeared too slightly old to be the mother of Bowman Wright’s Walter Lee Younger, Jr.--even with the added stress and aging of poverty--her subtle facial expressions and hand gestures emphasize the feeling that a hard life and boisterous family has simply exhausted Lena. Jessica Frances Dukes gave a charming, energized performance as Beneatha Younger, although she didn’t have an especially sparkling chemistry with Tyrien André Obahnjoko, who played both of her suitors.
While the characters filled the roles with a believable dignity, I had to wonder why O’Hara seemingly encouraged his actors to shout their lines. The frustration expressed in a raised voice might have been more effectively capture with more subtle vocal and physical cues.
Additionally, O’Hara made some drastic choices for scene transitions, several of which made me uncomfortable. The first occurred when Walter Lee Younger, Jr., and his wife, Ruth (played by Daphne Gaines) were arguing. While other adaptations of this scene might involve Ruth storming away or imply some sort of sexual involvement, O’Hara chose to more explicitly show Walter and Ruth violently kissing in a 1970s Harlequin “rape is romantic” scenario, followed by their partial disrobing beneath the half-crumbled wall.
Then, prerecorded moans came over the loudspeaker system, followed by whispered post-coital talk. This seemed more Hollywood-shocking than tasteful theatre-going.
Likewise, O’Hara created a tension-filled conclusion through a twist that explored the racial implications of leaving the apartment for a suburban home. The abrupt, shocking conclusion seemed more aggressive than necessary. There were questions left unanswered about the underlying problems in the early days of integration and the frustrated end offered little hope for this family's future or valuable criticism about race struggles as they still exist today.
Ultimately without answers to these questions O’Hara’s final statement comes across as nothing more than shock value, and left a bitter taste in my mouth as I left an otherwise enlightening and enchanting production of A Raisin in the Sun.