Citizen Staff Writer
Arizona Theatre Company continues its artistic journey into the past, following the joyful presentation of “Hair” with the social barrier-breaking African-American story of “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry.
The play is about a south side Chicago family in the 1950s trying to decide the best way to spend the sizeable payout from an insurance policy. When the Broadway production opened in 1959, Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee were cast in key roles.
It was the first Broadway play to be written by a black woman and has become a modern classic of American theater. From that beginning, a tumultuous 50 years of cultural change has followed: restaurant sit-ins, freedom rides, integrated Southern colleges, inner-city riots, the Black Panthers and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. were just a few of the jagged peaks.
Now this month, in the midst of ATC’s run of “A Raisin in the Sun,” a man of African-American descent will become President of the United States. A man, ironically enough, who lived on the south side of Chicago.
“Unless I’m just out to lunch or running around in rose-colored glasses, people are feeling the United States is poised to do something significant,” says Lou Bellamy, returning here to direct ATC’s production. He is the founding artistic director of Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minn. The company is most proud of producing more of August Wilson’s plays than any theater in the world. For ATC, Bellamy directed Wilson’s “Jitney” in 2006. Directing “A Raisin in the Sun” continues Bellamy’s mission.
“This play was written 50 years ago, but it still has a vibrancy that makes you see how far we’ve come … and haven’t come.”
In an earlier interview, Bellamy called “A Raisin in the Sun” a “generational crossroads play” rhetorically asking, “Do the young ones fall in step with their elders and carry on the family heritage with pride? Or do they blaze their own trail forward, risking everything to attain the American Dream?”
With Barack Obama moving into the White House, the dreams of many black families will begin feeling more American. Bellamy himself knows the power of believing. He started Penumbra in 1976 as a black repertory theater. Calling himself an “evangelist for black theater,” he not only kept that dream alive but nourished his company to national prominence.
Bellamy sees many similarities between the cautious optimism felt in the African-American community in 1959 and the feeling of hope he describes today. The play also contains all the hot buttons of a black family in transition out of enforced segregation – as well as equal amounts of humor and humanity.
“This play does not feel like a museum piece,” Bellamy insists. “It feels timely and it will speak to the audience. The human interaction is definitely there.”
Hansberry saw black America on the verge of being accepted by white America. But she also felt disagreement in the black community about the best way to push ahead. Many people were beginning to believe honest hard work would not be enough to win them equality.
To express that threshold to acceptance, Hansberry turned to the poet Langston Hughes. His 1951 poem “Harlem” begins with the lines “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”
To many theater patrons in 1959, it was shocking to imagine how much the everyday life of this black family resembled white families, troubled with the same domestic tensions as everyone else while trying to keep their own deferred dreams alive. The play opens on an early morning breakfast in the kitchen, eggs cooking on the stove.
A scene as American as apple pie.
“If we do our job well, it will feel like you are peeking in on someone’s family,” Bellamy says, smiling. “They are black, but you will recognize their feelings.
“The language is from the south side of Chicago – it is a dialect, but a beautiful one that will be clearly understood, with a shadow of the language of that time period.”
For Bellamy and his nine-member cast, accurate details go beyond getting the period costumes, settings and slang words just right.
“There is a cultural dimension here. That is, an awareness of, an appreciation for, the true culture. Not somebody’s stereotype,” the director explains. “All of us want to see it presented in a true light, so it isn’t distorted by an untrue performance.”
The sensitivity is certainly understandable. After several hundred years of having your history told by outsiders, imagine the satisfaction of finally getting to tell your own story yourself.
The story of “A Raisin in the Sun” begins when Lena Younger, the family matriarch, receives $10,000 from her deceased husband’s insurance policy. The family is poor and, in 1959, this is an exceptional amount of money.
Lena wants to use the money as the down payment on a house. Living with Lena in her small south side Chicago apartment are her son, Walter Lee Younger; his wife, Ruth; and their young son, Travis.
Walter wants the money to buy a liquor store with some friends, to become his own boss. Ruth sides with Lena, so the family can continue living together with more space.
But Walter’s sister, Beneatha, wants the money for her tuition to medical school. Beneatha also wishes the other family members weren’t so interested in joining the white world, but would feel more pride in their African heritage.
Her friend Joseph Asagai, from Nigeria, wants Beneatha to get her medical degree and move to Nigeria with him. Together they will work to better that country.
All these plans hit various snags, but the most significant is when Lena tries to buy a house in an all-white neighborhood.
IF YOU GO
What: Arizona Theatre Company presents “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry
When: Various times Tuesdays-Sundays through Jan. 31
Where: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
Info: 622-2823, aztheatreco.org