A Raisin in the Sun

Goodman Theatre

What Use Are Flowers?

Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts

By Adam Langer

This May seems to have become unofficial Lorraine Hansberry Month. Goodman Theatre is reviving her classic A Raisin in the Sun while the Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts is investigating some intriguing Hansberry esoterica, offering a reading of her unfinished work Les Blancs and a full production of her play for television What Use Are Flowers? And Hansberry’s alma mater, Englewood High School, will be presenting a production of her autobiographical To Be Young, Gifted and Black.

The debate over Hugh Hefner Way is pretty much over and the signs are up. But a guerrilla movement to replace them with ones reading “Lorraine Hansberry Place” wouldn’t be a bad idea. If nothing else it would prove that Hansberry, unlike the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun and her family when they lived in Chicago, was finally welcome in a largely white neighborhood.

A Raisin in the Sun was the first play by an African-American woman to appear on Broadway (and anyone who can name the most recent Broadway play by an African-American woman should get some kind of prize). But Hansberry tends to get short shrift in discussions of Chicago writers. For one thing, she died young, at the age of 34 in 1965, so her output was relatively small, and she achieved most of her fame on the east coast because she left Chicago at 20 for Greenwich Village and later lived in Westchester County. But also her plays don’t feature the usual posse of salt-of-the-earth white men so popular in Chicago literature. The closest Raisin has to offer from the Mametian/Terkelian/Roykovian universe is the racist leader of a local housing committee who tries to bribe the Younger family to stay out of his neighborhood.

Hansberry drew on her own experiences with racism but was sometimes criticized for coming from a more middle-class background than her characters. She was the daughter of real estate entrepreneur Carl Hansberry, who worked alongside noted black leader Jesse Binga, a major player in Chicago business as well as something of a wordsmith himself. These days, given that most major American playwrights have attended elite playwriting programs at prestigious universities, the idea that Hansberry was slumming when she wrote Raisin seems somewhat absurd.

Goodman’s revival shows that more than 40 years after the play premiered, A Raisin in the Sun remains a vital, painfully relevant work. It reflects on two key themes informing practically every play in the pantheon of Great American Dramas, from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and The Price to August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson: honoring or taking advantage of a family legacy, and moving in social terms as well as geographically. When family matriarch Lena Younger receives ten thousand dollars in insurance after her husband dies, she must choose between investing in a risky business venture endorsed by her son, Walter Lee, a chauffeur with dreams of making it big in the liquor business, and buying a house in a safe, almost all white neighborhood far from the Youngers’ cramped, cockroach-infested apartment.

Raisin is informed by other life choices as well. Should Lena’s smart, defiant daughter Beneatha accept the advances of a charming African exchange student or those of a man who’s financially above her but culturally beneath her? Should Walter Lee’s wife take the pregnancy of their second child to term or abort it? Does a “dream deferred sag like a heavy load,” as Langston Hughes put it, or does it explode? Should the Younger family accept the bribes of the white folks who don’t want them in their neighborhood or should they move there and face the undoubtedly violent consequences? Hansberry’s family underwent considerable hardship when they moved into an all white neighborhood near 63rd and South Park (now Martin Luther King Drive), and this plot point seems unfortunately current–substitute any number of Chicago neighborhoods for 63rd and King, and the issues Hansberry raises are eerily up-to-date.

Goodman’s staging, directed by Chuck Smith, is forceful and vibrant, riveting our attention from the moment we’re introduced to the Youngers’ apartment until the play’s bittersweet ending. Only 29 years old when Raisin premiered, Hansberry hadn’t developed Wilson’s talent for character and dialogue or the poetry of Miller, Eugene O’Neill, or Tennessee Williams. But her play exudes the wit, intelligence, and compassion common to great drama.

There are no false notes in this production. Every performance, from Harry Lennix’s smoldering Walter Lee to Irma P. Hall’s charismatic Lena to T’Keyah Crystal Keymah’s brash and charming Beneatha, is right on the money. The sets, the lighting, the musical interludes–every aspect of Goodman’s production pays fitting tribute to a truly fine Chicago writer.

Duncan YMCA’s production of Hansberry’s hour-long piece for TV What Use Are Flowers? is more historical relic than compelling drama. Deeply philosophical yet often didactic, it revolves around an old hermit who returns to society after some kind of apocalypse and finds a group of orphaned children living in a pack like animals or refugees from Lord of the Flies. The script, which has the earnestness of a Pete Seeger folk song, follows the hermit’s efforts to socialize the children, give them a language, and teach them about love, death, beauty, and the need to propagate.

Though the cast is largely made up of children–Robert Hines plays the hermit–this YMCA production is surprisingly strong and assured. This is the sort of youth theater that makes you scan the program for the name of the director. In this case it’s Tiffany Trent: her superb use of the cast combined with stunningly professional set and lighting designs have produced a top-notch staging. Who the audience might be is uncertain, however: the script seems too preachy and static for younger viewers yet will most likely be a bit familiar and obvious to adults.

But what Flowers lacks in originality and drama it makes up for in compassionate worldview. It may not merit the same attention as A Raisin in the Sun, but at least the author is finally getting the attention she deserves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.