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Home > Arts > REVIEW: Power and Privilege in <em>A Raisin in the Sun</em> (Guthrie Theater)

REVIEW: Power and Privilege in A Raisin in the Sun (Guthrie Theater)

What would you if someone offered you money to abandon your dreams – and was racist? In A Raisin in the Sun, now playing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Karl Lindner (Terry Hempleman) offers to buy out the Younger family (James T. Alfred as Walter Lee Younger, Nubia Monks as Beneatha Younger, Anita Welch as Ruth Younger, Adolphe Magloire Jr. as Travis Younger, and Tonia Jackson as Lena Younger) to stop them from moving into a White neighborhood. Photo by Tom Wallace.

[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this review reversed the names of several actors, which has been corrected.]

When I attended the opening night of A Raisin in the Sun at the Guthrie Theater, I had an unexpected emotional shock. Immediately, upon entering the proscenium theatre to see this play by Lorraine Hansberry, I was struck by the great diversity of the audience. I had never witnessed such a disparate gathering of both White and Black members of the community in this building.

After the lights went up and Hansberry’s moving drama began, the themes of racial disparity in wealth and opportunity unfolded with their award-winning impact. But, too, I had to take my eyes off the performance to watch the audience reaction. Everyone’s eyes were fixed upon the stage, while my mind flashed with the images of two years’ prior in Minneapolis: of street demonstrations and oppressive retaliation.

For a moment, I caught my breath. I realized that, in a beautiful way, we were communally acknowledging some of the issues pronounced during the unrest. Part of the audience enthusiastically affirmed the realism inherent in the performance, while others such as myself empathized with the characters to more deeply understand the issues they had to deal with in their lives.

A Raisin in the Sun was proclaimed the best play of 1959 by The New York Drama Critics’ Circle. Pictured: Tonia Jackson (Lena Younger), James T. Alfred (Walter Lee Younger), and Nubia Monks (Beneatha Younger). Photo by Tom Wallace.

The onstage story, directed by Austene Van, begins as a slice-of-life of the African-American Younger family in a tenement apartment building, circa 1953. Ruth, the wife of Walter Lee Younger and mother to their young son, goes through her morning routine shaking her family awake for school and work. Anita Welch’s performance as Ruth anchors a feeling of reality as she projects Ruth’s determination to keep her family on schedule. Jackson/Ruth radiates the sense that she holds her family together by sheer will power.

Ruth’s husband, Walter Lee Younger (played by James T. Alfred), shows no such reservoir of will power. Whatever was once there has been exhausted – drained out – by the time the play begins. This is an interesting choice, with some significant consequences: we don’t see Walter as an imposing force like Ruth or his mother Lena, who also lives with them. While Walter Lee reveals his feelings of frustration and contempt for his poverty, Alfred does not project his character with the same level of force as Jackson, which reduces the dramatic tension for the entire play. As a result, the audience is not stunned by his criticism of his wife’s efforts, because they seem like petty complaints that she simply brushes off when he finally leaves for work.

If this take on Walter is weak, his younger sister Beneatha Younger (Nubia Monks) is played as a force to be dealt with. Because of her college education, Beneatha shows a meta-understanding of her family’s position in a society with a legacy of slavery and colonialism. Beneatha bubbles with enthusiasm for the opportunity to study medicine and the belief that she understands how to subvert all the obstacles that come her way. However, her self-esteem is continually threatened by the struggle to get personal time in the bathroom shared by other residents of the apartment building.

Tempers rise in the Guthrie Theater production of A Raisin in the Sun. Pictured: James T. Alfred (Walter Younger), Anita Welch (Ruth Younger), and Nubia Monks (Beneatha Younger). Photo by Tom Wallace.

Lena Younger, mother to Walter and Beneatha, and grandmother to Walter and Ruth’s child, is played by Tonia Jackson with great inner strength. It’s obvious by her performance that the director has cast Ruth as the head of the family, not Walter Lee. She receives a ten-thousand dollar check in insurance money for the death of her husband, Walter and Beneatha’s father. It is made clear early in the play that she regards the decision of how the money should be spent is hers. This makes for little dramatic tension when both Lena and Walter beg her to allow Walter to invest the money in a liquor store.

Thus comes the pivotal moment in the play: Ruth Younger uses her husband’s insurance policy payout to purchase a house for the family…in an all-white, middle-class neighborhood. What follows is a series of events delivered in no small part through a series of lengthy monologues, which impart important exposition but bog down the action. One of the exceptions to this is the appearance by Jamecia Bennett as the passive-aggressive Mrs. Johnson, played to the comedic hilt as she attempts to dissuade the Youngers from aspiring to move out of the tenement.

Near the play’s end, Walter unequivocally declaims that his family will not sell the house and will instead move to this previously all-White community. With the hindsight of history looking at the Civil Rights Movement, this might seem anti-climatical. However, I came away with a new understanding of the momentous nature of this decision. The Youngers turn down the generous profit they could have made by reselling their house to the white resident’s association. Instead, they asserted their right to a quality of life lived by most White Americans. They committed themselves to showing how a Black family, with its everyday concerns, can be good neighbors in the face of discrimination based upon stereotypes.

I don’t know what was going through the minds of the other audience members as they erupted in a standing ovation. Whether this sort of truly diverse, communal participation at a theatre performance will produce catharsis – will help our society to rise above misunderstanding and stereotyping – has yet to become clear. However, I have always believed in the power of theatre to bring about social change.

A Raisin in the Sun plays through June 5 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Dan Reiva