This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub
With Bruce Norris’ acclaimed Clybourne Park arriving at the Oxford Playhouse next week, it seems only appropriate to treat dedicated theatre-goers to a staged reading of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun, the 1959 play upon which Clybourne Park is based, a few days before. Produced in association with Oxford’s Ruskin College and directed by John Retallack, this reading defies expectations: it’s a little pedestrian, understandably, but it’s also fierce, witty, and savagely intelligent.
Hansberry’s play, which was the first Broadway production to be written by a black woman, is a seminal piece of American drama. It presents a working-class black family in Chicago’s Southside, and charts the rise and fall of their individual hopes and dreams. Lena, or Mama – here imbued with a wealth of emotion in a gloriously matriarchal performance from Denise Orita – has received a cheque for ten thousand dollars through her departed husband’s life insurance policy, with which she dreams of finally buying a house for her children and grandchildren. Her aspiring son Walter Lee wants to invest in a liquor store business with his mates, her daughter Beneatha hopes to become a doctor, and Walter Lee’s wife Ruth is trying to stay out of it.
But this is just expositional detail. Like O’Neill, Miller and Williams, Hansberry effortlessly manages to examine the macro through the micro, the political through the personal. A Raisin In The Sun is actually a panoramic survey of the African-American experience. In a script brimming with authenticity and grit, Hansberry incisively finds the conflicts and hypocrisies that define twentieth century African-American life: Walter Lee is vituperatively critical of his own race, desperately seeking to get rich like a white capitalist; Beneatha is, not without satire, searching for her African roots, shunning materialism, assimilationism and her wealthy boyfriend to boot; and Lena, raised in the segregated south, is a survivalist, modestly scrimping and saving for her children. It is the conflict between these opposing views, these contradictory visions of America, that provides the fuel for the fire of Hansberry’s dialogue.
Even in an unadorned performance space, with actors clutching scripts and the occasional stumble when lines are mixed up, the raw power of this fire is still arresting. There is some stylish, sensitive acting here too. Alex Steadman is particularly impressive as Walter Lee, in a passionate, turbulent fireball of a performance, as is Orita as the domineering, but eternally loving, Lena. Mezze Eade does well as Ruth, world-wearied with her husband’s determined optimism, as does Eva Fontaine as the liberal, educated Beneatha. There is a nice cameo from Paul Ansdell as well, as a false, obsequious, and ridiculously racist member of the Neighbourhood Improvement Association.
Staged readings can often be drearily dull affairs, plagued by the incessant shuffling of scripts and clumsy delivery. Happily, this is not the case with A Raisin In The Sun. With Hansberry enjoying something of a resurgence in Britain at the moment – a completed version of her unfinished Les Blancs is currently wowing audiences and critics alike at the National – this modest but affecting presentation of her most famous play is welcome indeed. And it’s the perfect appetizer for Norris’ Clybourne Park next week.