More than a quarter century has passed since "A Raisin in the Sun" first appeared on Broadway, but the years have done nothing to diminish its stature. If anything, time has merely validated what seemed evident from the start. It is one of a handful of great American dramas.
That it was a milestone -- the first play by a black woman ever to be produced on Broadway -- now seems largely secondary. What is important is that Lorraine Hansberry gave us a work that miraculously continues to speak to the American experience. "A Raisin in the Sun" belongs in the inner circle, along with such enduring dramas as "Death of a Salesman," "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "The Glass Menagerie." There are precious few of them.
Revived by the Roundabout Theatre in New York last summer in a production that has been reassembled for Washington, "Raisin" began a four-week run Saturday night in the Eisenhower Theater. The cast, headed by Esther Rolle and Delroy Lindo, is superb. The direction by Harold Scott ripples with sheer muscularity. Starting out in the slumbering stillness of another workaday morning, this production builds so inexorably in power and passion that audiences will find they have no choice but to submit.
Although it is set on Chicago's South Side in the early 1950s and concerns the efforts of the Youngers, a lower-class black family, to move to an all-white neighborhood in the suburbs, the play's deepest concerns transcend the political and sociological conditions of the day. To see it merely in terms of evolving race relations or the class struggle, as some are wont to do, is to acknowledge only part of its greatness. What makes "Raisin" universal ld,10 is Hansberry's fierce moral sense.
Her characters live in a society that has given them the short end of the stick and forever is countering their dreams with the harsh realities of poverty. Mama (Rolle) yearns to trade their crowded, roach-infested apartment for a modest two-story house with a garden. Walter Lee, her son (Lindo) and an incipient wheeler-dealer, wants to quit his job as a chauffeur and invest in a liquor store. Beneatha (Kim Yancey), her idealistic daughter, looks to medical school as a way out and up. And Ruth (Starletta DuPois), Walter Lee's wife, aches for the love that has drained out of their marriage.
But all they are really asking for is a chance to assert their worth, to be something more than they are, to aspire. When Mama gets a $ 10,000 check from her late husband's insurance policy, the dreams suddenly seem possible -- which brings us to the real meat of the play. "Raisin" is about making choices and it assumes that even in adversity there are right and wrong choices. At a time when moral expediency seems to be the rule and success is merely grabbing as much as you can, there is something fundamentally exhilarating about Hansberry's insistence that a person's soul is his true measure.
Priggishness was never part of her temperament, however. "A Raisin in the Sun" is lusty, gritty and much funnier than I remember from past productions. The one embodiment of the white world in the play, a representative of the homeowners association that is willing to pay the Youngers to stay put in the ghetto, is a bigot in lamb's clothing. John Fielder, a veteran from the original Broadway production, plays him perfectly as a cross between Lester Maddox and Mr. Peepers.
But Hansberry didn't settle for easy scapegoats. She was just as unsparing about the foibles of Youngers themselves -- Mama's tyranny, Walter Lee's recklessness, Beneatha's impetuousness. If the Youngers finally emerge from their ordeal stronger and wiser than they were, their growth has not come easily. And the happy ending may be just the beginning of a whole new set of problems.
Still, you leave "A Raisin in the Sun" feeling life has been affirmed and decency momentarily has prevailed. Most contemporary drama does not strike that note without seeming reactionary or stupidly sentimental. Hansberry was neither, which made her death from cancer at age 34 especially wasteful.
Forsaking reverence, the cast honors the play the best way possible -- by filling it with rare emotion. In the role that made Sidney Poitier a star, Lindo is electrifyingly good. Tall, strapping, radiating nervous energy to the tips of his large, flailing hands, his Walter Lee is, indeed, what he says he is: "a giant surrounded by ants." Lindo lashes out with the desperation of a drowning man. Then, when his grand schemes backfire, he turns the fury against himself and the performance acquires the intensity of Greek tragedy.
Tradition -- and the interpretation of Claudia McNeil, who created the role -- dictate that Mama be an earth mother, enfolding her brood with infinite love and understanding. Rolle comes at the character from another angle -- emphasizing her wry humor, her sardonic tone and the sharpness of her glare. If the approach cuts Mama down to more manageable size, it also neatly sidesteps all the usual matriarchal stereotypes.
As Ruth, DuPois flowers beautifully -- going from a downtrodden drudge, harnessed to the ironing board, to the joyful wife who can't contain her elation over moving. DuPois even seems to shed years in the process. And Yancey's Beneatha, in whom stir the seeds of feminism and black pride, is a wonderful blend of impulsiveness and thoughtfulness.
It is hard, however, to separate them or any of the fine supporting players -- Kimble Joyner, Lou Ferguson, Stephen Henderson -- from the fabric of the play. "Raisin" is a perfect example of the sort of 1950s naturalistic play writing that once went hand in glove with the Method style of acting. Our theater may have gone on to other fashions in both performing and writing, but Scott and his cast are reminding us how persuasive this kind of dramaturgy still can be.
With the restoration of passages deleted from the original Broadway production, "Raisin" now runs more than three hours. But it is a bountiful three hours. Not only do we believe Hansberry's characters, but we care about them at every turn. And caring, we share their exultation and their hurt.
Looking out the window of Thomas Cariello's appropriately grim apartment set, Mama finds herself at one point wishing for "a whole lotta sunlight." That, it turns out, is precisely what "Raisin" throws on the secret and confused recesses of our hearts. To see it is to stand taller afterward.
A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Harold Scott; set, Thomas Cariello; costumes, Judy Dearing; lighting, Shirley Prendergast. With Esther Rolle, Delroy Lindo, Starletta DuPois, Lou Ferguson, Stephen Henderson, Kimble Joyner, Joseph C. Phillips, Kim Yancey, John Fiedler. At the Eisenhower Theater through Dec. 6.