PlayMaker’s new production of the classic, Raisin in the Sun, is one of its very best. The play written by Loraine Hansberry, a Black woman, debuted on Broadway during segregation in the late 1950’s. Not wanting us to forget the stultifying obstacles to African American success, the current director, Raelle Myrick-Hodges chose (brilliantly) to refresh our understanding by interspersing lines from an interview with Hansberry. Inserted at the beginning, middle, and end of the play, the excerpts weave thematically with the drama at hand. Still, in a conversation at intermission, friends wondered: Was it necessary? I mean don’t we all know about segregation and the hardships of African American life in the 50’s? I don’t know. Do we? I’d like to think Yes, but maybe with a Black president and a world in which minority perspectives regularly appear on the front page, we’ve forgotten how it was back then. Regardless, Hansberry’s comments enrich our understanding of both the play and the denigration she experienced. It should also encourage us. Despite ongoing tensions in our culture, we have moved forward.
If Raisin in the Sun pertained only to racism, it might have lost power with the changing times, but dramaturgs have praised it for its ongoing resonance. At heart, it portrays a family complicated by individual ambitions and loyalties—a chorus of asynchronous accordions, expanding and shrinking desires. At the center is Lena. (Kathryn Hunter-Williams plays this matriarch so perfectly that despite having seen this actress in at least 15 productions, I thought of her only as Lena.) Lena takes charge of the household where her two adult children, a daughter-in-law, and grandson live with her. Firm in her faith, Lena tries to ground her children and grandson in Christian values; however, she does not deny their hardships or minimize them with talk of Heaven and the promise of something better. She embodies a rare duality: while seeming to accept without rancor what’s wrong with their situation, she also works to change it. From the beginning, we learn that Lena will receive a windfall that has the potential to alter everyone’s life. Midway through the action, she takes a tremendous risk. With the aim of finally achieving her dream and others’, her decision cascades into apparent triumphs as well as disasters.
Her children, Walter and Beneatha, seem to struggle more than she does. Unhappy with their present circumstances, they both dream of storied futures, and they search the world around them for visions of success. Walter, forcefully played by Mikaal Sulaiman, can’t stand the daily insults of his job. Having seen the easy, catered lives of his White employers, he develops a viral desire to have what they have. His sister, well played by Miriam A. Hyman, pursues out-of-reach goals as well. She wants to become a doctor, but she has no clear financial pathway to studying medicine. In this tightly bound family, only Lena and Walter’s wife, Ruth, seem grounded. They have fantasies of a different life, but neither nurses these until they seem attainable. They are the most flexible characters: able to embrace change whether good or bad.
Part of the play’s brilliance lies in the dance of family and society. These interrelated characters must find a way to balance their individual needs with those of the family while negotiating the trap of the larger society. At times, their competing desires scatter them, but the draw of family remains. Each character becomes a vital force in the action, and even though we leave the play satisfied, we understand that not all conflicts have been resolved. We know the drama goes on.