Black Ensemble

I was five years old and a good 800 miles off Broadway when Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1959, announcing the possibility of an American black theater without tap shoes or head rags. So I missed both the original run and the sensation it caused. But I know the play well enough, all the same, through reading it and seeing subsequent productions. And I know that for all that I might admire it, I’ve never felt much of an affinity for anything or anyone in it.

Seeing A Raisin in the Sun was never much more than an exercise in urban anthropology for me: a chance to look in on a neighboring but thoroughly alien way of life. Hansberry’s heroes, the Youngers, were black and poor and bound to another era–that first decade after World War II, when the masses of southern blacks who’d come pouring into cities like Chicago during the war were inciting a social revolution simply by being there, being black, and needing homes.

While I could sympathize with their struggles, and appreciate the extent to which those struggles have transformed Life As We Know It–planting the seeds for everything from Cabrini-Green to Harold Washington, from Dr. King’s march through Marquette Park to the Reverend Jackson’s run for the presidency–I never felt more than a vague sort of humanitarian interest in them. I wasn’t black, I wasn’t poor, and I wasn’t really of their time; all I was was a white guy giving a respectful hearing to a well-written play with some social history to it.

But something different happened this time around, something that finally gave me a way in to the Younger family. Watching Jackie Taylor’s Black Ensemble cast perform the famous breakfast scene at the beginning of the play, I heard Walter Lee Younger tell his wife, “This morning, I was lookin’ in the mirror and thinking about it . . . I’m 35 years old.” And I said to myself, My God, Walter Lee and I are the same age!

After all these years of hearing about him and reading about him and seeing him in the movies and onstage and thinking of him as one of those half-dead high school English class icons, right up there with Sydney Carton and the lawyer from To Kill a Mockingbird, I’d somehow grown into him. Walter Lee and I had something in common.

A whole new world opened up. A Raisin in the Sun turns on the $10,000 in insurance money the Youngers receive as compensation for the death of Walter Lee’s father, and on what the various members of the family want to do with it. Walter Lee’s cast-iron mom, Lena, wants to put it into a down payment on a house; his free-thinking sister, Beneatha, needs it for her medical school tuition; his pregnant wife, Ruth, seems to view it as nothing more nor less than the means to a little comfort.

But Walter Lee sees it as his salvation. Crushed between a miserable chauffeur’s job on the one hand and a tough family matriarchy on the other, crazy to prove his manhood to himself as much as to his 11-year-old son, Walter Lee wants to get hold of the money so that he can go partners with two friends in a liquor store.

I’m nobody’s chauffeur, I’ve never wanted a liquor store, my mother lives in Florida, my oldest son’s only five, and the insurance money on my dad arrived while I was still a minor, too young to have much say in what was done with it. My life isn’t at all like Walter Lee’s. But something in the 35-year-old desperation of it called out to me just the same. Something in Walter Lee’s frustration, something in his appetite, his egotism, his strangely characteristic mix of vaulting ambition and absolute exhaustion. There was finally an element here that I could understand without reference to history.

No thanks, really, to this particular production. Jonell Kennedy makes a fine, wry Beneatha, and big-shouldered Cedric Young gives Walter Lee a solidity that doesn’t appear in the Sidney Poitier paradigm–but the rest is negligible: full of borderline acting and indifferent directing. Taylor’s blocking, especially, is surprisingly bad, pieced together out of actions that often just don’t make sense. And as for the kid who plays Walter Lee’s boy, Travis, all I can say is that if the child doesn’t want to be onstage, why force him? I’ve never seen a more reluctant actor in my life.

No, this Raisin works purely because it’s a classic–that is, because it’s capable of offering as much as we’re capable of taking from it as we grow and change. In a way, I wish it weren’t such a classic: I read a news story the other day that said that even black people who play by mainstream rules–finishing school, getting legitimate jobs–are losing ground in the Reagan/Bush economy, falling out of the middle class or failing to get there at all. Apparently Hansberry’s portrait of Walter Lee is not only as emotionally but as socially accurate now, 30 years later, as it ever was.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.