Lorraine Hansberry’s timeless family drama untangles the complexity of race, misogyny and the pursuit of the American dream.
Premiering on Broadway in 1959 when Lorraine Hansberry was just 29, A Raisin in the Sun was the first Broadway show with a black, female playwright and the first with a Black director (Lloyd Richards). Now, over sixty years later it is the first time a Black, female playwright, Indigenous director (Wesley Enoch) and a primarily Black cast have come together to perform it on Australian soil.
A Raisin in the Sun follows the five members of the Younger family. Lena Younger (referred to as Mama, Gayle Samuels) has recently lost her husband and her daughter Beneatha (Angela Mahlatjie), son Walter (Ber Labonte), his wife Ruth (Zahra Newman) and their son Travis (Gaius Nolan) are eagerly waiting a $10,000 life insurance check that will change their lives.
The Younger family are in pursuit of their own American dream, and this money is their chance. Walter wants to invest in a small liquor store with two friends so that he can quit his day job as a chauffeur for a ‘rich, white man’, Beneatha has ambitions to attend medical school and Lena and Ruth dream of a white picket fence.
What is most astonishing about Hansberry’s text is the simplicity with which she layers issues that Australia and our global community are still struggling with today. The play tackles the complexity and intersectional nature of oppression, in particular the overlay of race and gender on systems of class. Her commentary on anti-Black sentiment within black communities was ahead of its time. Hansberry is able to interrogate different belief systems within a single community in a nuanced way, as if refuting the assumption that all people of colour think the same. Despite the heavy nature of this discourse the text is not without vigour, utilising secondary characters to add both humour and to layer tension.
Enoch’s (The 7 Stages of Grieving) direction is focused on enhancing this tension and chemistry between characters. With modern-day productions becoming larger in scale and more technology-focused, Enoch’s direction and set choices feel conventional in their service of the script, working to enhance the innate rhythm of Hansberry’s text and the weightiness of her characters.
The set (Mel Page) is a simple open plan kitchen and living room space that opens wide across the stage, book-ended by two bedrooms with large windows. The openness adds intimacy as if the audience has suddenly been thrown into an awkward family reunion. Mood lighting (Verity Hampson) brings the bedrooms into view in tense private moments of silence or anger for the audience to peer in.
The dialogue heavy text and wide-open set means there is nowhere for the actors to hide. Samuels and Labonte deliver strong performances, leveraging a sweet mother-son chemistry to explore generational differences. Newman is stunning as Ruth, delivering a complexity of emotions in moments of silence. Mahlatjie adds authenticity to Beneatha’s journey to understanding her African heritage.
Nancy Denis steals the show as the hilariously controversial neighbour Mrs Johnson, and Leinad Walker is the perfect snob as George Murchison. Adolphus Waylee is patient and clear as Joseph Asagai, his conversation with Beneatha on the cyclical nature of progress and the pursuit of civil liberty is one of the show’s most profound moments.
Through a simple premise, A Raisin in the Sun explores the experience of a generation much like ours, sandwiched between the despair of the past and the hope of the future. Walter is constantly reminded he should be grateful for what he has, with segregation still a reality, and yet he is deeply haunted by the attainment of the American dream. The treatment of black failure in the face of this also remains profound. To allow a person of colour to be imperfect in their pursuit for success and still be loved and forgiven at a time when Black failure sometimes led to lynching or prison, is a statement in itself.
Over sixty years after its premiere, we still have a lot to learn from Lorraine Hansberry.
A Raisin in the Sun
Sydney Theatre Company
Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney
Director: Wesley Enoch
Designer: Mel Page
Lighting Designer: Verity Hampson
Composer and Sound Designer: Brendon Boney
Production Dramaturg and Understudy Director: Zindzi Okenyo
Cultural Consultant: Charles Allen
Fight Director: Nigel Poulton
Intimacy Coordinator: Chloë Dallimore
Accent Coach: Amani Dorn
Voice Coach: Jennifer White
Cast: Nancy Denis, Bert LaBonte, Angela Mahlatjie, Zahra Newman, Gaius Nolan, Gayle Samuels, Leinad Walker, Jacob Warner, Adolphus Waylee and Ibrahima Yade
First Published on ArtsHub on 12 September 2022.