‘It’s About People’

In mid-June, the most recent incarnation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, ”A Raisin in the Sun” closed on Broadway, after a run which garnered Tony awards for ”Best Revival of a Play,” ”Best Director of a Play” and ”Best Supporting Actress.” There were additional nominations which didn’t result in awards.

Although it doesn’t have Denzel Washington in a leading role, you can see an outstanding production of that same play, in Chautauqua Institution’s Bratton Theater, which opens tonight at 6, following a preview performance yesterday, and will run at varying times through July 6.

This week, I have sat down with five members of the talented cast of the Chautauqua production, which is being directed by the company’s resident director, Ethan McSweeny. Let me tell you a bit about the play itself, and then I’ll tell you what I learned from my visit with five of the actors.

THE PLAY

”A Raisin in the Sun” is accepted, pretty much everywhere, as an American classic. Despite this, it has been involved in a number of controversies.

The title of the play comes from a poem titled ”Harlem,” by African American poet Langston Hughes. The poem has been printed in some books with the title ”A Dream Deferred.” The poem asks the reader what happens to a dream which has been deferred. The first suggestion is that the dream will shrivel, and eventually die, as will a raisin left in the sun.

The play involves three generations of an African American family, living in deep poverty, in a two-bedroom apartment on the south side of Chicago, in the 1950s. This was before federal law prohibited neighborhoods from excluding certain races or religions. Young people today sometimes think of segregation and Jim Crow laws in our country as something from the distant past, but many will say they aren’t completely banished, even today.

The principal characters of the play are a mother, her son and daughter, the son’s wife, and her young grandson.

The playwright employs a writing technique called ”deus ex machina,” which means ”God from a Machine.” That odd title came from a practice in ancient drama, in which when a character got himself into deep trouble, and the playwright couldn’t think of a way he could logically get out of the situation, he would bring on an actor dressed as one of the ancient gods, such as Apollo or Venus. The actor would be lowered by a machine onto the stage from above, as though he or she was flying into the action, down from Heaven.

In the case of ”Raisin,” the miraculous action is an insurance check, from a policy bought by the husband of the central character. Every member of the family has a dream, and the check can make it possible for one of them to achieve that dream.

Lena Younger, the mother and grandmother, wants to buy a house, away from the crime, violence and disease of the neighborhood in which they now live. She imagines her young grandson growing up safer and more motivated to success.

Walter Lee, her son, earns a modest living as a driver of a limousine. It weighs heavily on him that his family doesn’t have enough, and that he must behave in a subservient manner to the passengers in the car. He believes the money can make it possible for him to open a business of his own, which will give him self-respect and eventually earn the money to help with the rest of the family’s dreams.

Daughter Beneatha is an excellent student in school. She believes she can use the insurance check to attend medical school, and eventually become a doctor, and she can both live a life of dignity and respect, and can provide healing and care for humanity, and especially her own race.

Lena is wise enough to see weaknesses in all three dreams. The check is made out in her name. She will make the ultimate decision, and bear the responsibility for those dreams which would need to be deferred, so that the one she chose could happen.

While Lena is wrestling with the dilemma, a man comes to visit the Younger family from the Neighborhood Improvement Society of Clybourne Park, the all-white neighborhood in which Lena has decided to buy her safe new house. He lets it be known that an African American family will not be welcomed in his all-white suburb, and he offers to pay the family more than the value of the house, if they will give it up.

In other words, if she accepts that her family is not worthy to live in his neighborhood, he will give her enough money that she can possibly make more than one of her children’s dreams come true.

If you saw last year’s production at the CTC of the play ”Clybourne Park,” by Bruce Norris, it dealt with Lena’s house, a generation after she tortured herself with the decision to spend her money on it or to accept being rejected as unworthy by the neighbors.

Some of the controversies surrounding the play dealt with the fact that Hughes’ poem gives other possible results to the failure of dreams, beyond shriveling like a raisin. The last of his suggestions is that those dreams can explode. Many readers took that as a call to violence.

There is exciting action as well as plenty of food for thought in both the play and the production. Especially if you haven’t seen it before, or you haven’t seen it for more than a decade, it should be on your ”I need to see this” list, for certain.

THE CHARACTERS

JOSEPH ASAGAI is not a major character, but he provides an important point of view in the play. Asagai is a native of Nigeria, in Africa. He is a student who is seriously considering a marriage with Beneatha, and a return to Africa. He has grown up in a world where slavery did not exist, and where Africans are in the vast majority, not a persecuted minority. At Chautauqua, he is portrayed by Toby Onwumere.

Onwumere is a member of this season’s conservatory, where he is in his first year. He is a graduate of the University of Evansville, and is currently studying in the University of California, San Diego’s Graduate Acting program. His list of performing experiences include five Shakespearean productions, an Ibsen work, and a long list of contemporary productions.

He sees his character as an idealist, yet as a product of his own history. ”Asagai sees himself as a good person, who wants to study medicine and take his skills home to make his homeland better. He loves Beneatha, and is fascinated by her independence and her ambition. She refuses to take “No,” for an answer, even from him, and he admires that, yet he envisions a day in the future when it will stop, and she will become an obedient 1950s-style wife.” He certainly doesn’t consider that Beneatha will be as much an outsider in Nigeria as she would be if the family moved to Clybourne Park.

The young actor has enjoyed working with the cast of the production, especially Jonathan Majors who plays Walter Lee Younger. He reports that Majors has been a friend since childhood, although they have not previously had the occasion to share a stage. He also has high praise for director Ethan McSweeny, who he believes has a talent for zeroing in on exactly the most important elements of the plot.

He reports that he has enjoyed his stay at Chautauqua, so far, and feels he has been made welcome by the population. ”I’ve heard that the entire place changes completely, when the season starts,” he said, an observation he surely understands by now.

”Hansberry’s play is about African-Americans, but it is so much more than that,” he said. ”It’s about people, and what they want and what can happen to them, and that will always stand the test of time.”

LENA YOUNGER is the central figure in the play. She is the mother of Walter Lee and Beneatha, and the grandmother of Walter Lee’s son Travis, and it was the loss of her husband which produced the insurance check which holds the possible solution to so many problems. At Chautauqua, she is portrayed by Lynda Gravatt.

Ms. Gravatt spoke with us, despite a great personal loss of her own. The day before our interview, her close personal friend Ruby Dee had died. Being contracted to the production at Chautauqua, she wasn’t able to attend services for her friend, whom she has known since 1985. ”Ruby played Ruth, Walter Lee’s wife in the first Broadway production, of this play, back in 1959, and her picture is on the cover of the scripts we’re using, to rehearse,” she said. ”It makes the play mean more, but it hurts more, too.”

This is the actor’s second production of Hansberry’s only play. She played the first one with Phylicia Rashad, who played Bill Cosby’s wife on his popular television series, some years back.

”To me, the key to playing Lena is realizing that the woman is entirely made up of love. She loved her late husband, and hurts with his loss. She dearly loves both of her children, she loves her daughter-in-law and her grandson. Everything she does is done out of love, and not for personal gain. To help any of the people she loves, she will have to deny others she loves, things which they deserve, and which would be good for them,” she said.

Lynda Gravatt said she feels comfortable and welcome at Chautauqua, has enjoyed working with the CTC cast and crew, and was looking forward to the arrival of the throngs, for the opening of the season, at the time of our interview. Her one discomfort? She has been told so many stories about the many bats at Chautauqua, she tries never to go out of doors, after dark. ”I grew up in New York City, but I’ve chosen to live outside the city, because I love almost all kinds of animals. I know it isn’t reasonable, but I just don’t like bats,” she said.

BENEATHA YOUNGER, the would-be doctor and liberated woman, will be performed by Chasten Harmon, a young woman of great beauty who radiates energy as she talks. She is a member of the acting conservatory of the CTC.

She is an actor, singer, and dancer, and has played in a wide variety of professional productions, from an Off-Broadway production of the ancient Greek plot ”Iphegenia 2.0” to the 2009-10 production of ”Hair,” on Broadway. Her career up to now has been in musical shows, and she said that ”Raisin” will only be her second non-musical production, ever.

”Beneatha is smart, ambitious and idealistic,” she told me. ”She’s still very young, and she lived in a different age, so she gives in to what other members of her family say, sometimes, but I think it’s very obvious that in a few years, this young woman is going to be a real powerhouse.”

The actor says she has read pieces written by writers who think Beneatha is not a product of the 1950s, when the play takes place, but has been created too modern by the playwright. She thinks that one cause of that complaint is the fact that the audience only sees Beneatha in her own home, where she feels safe and is willing to speak out and act out more.

Harmon holds a BFA degree from New York University, and is currently a graduate student at Yale. I asked her about the troubles besetting the New York theater scene, since she has recently performed there. She agreed that New York shows, especially those produced on Broadway, are too expensive for nearly anyone to attend regularly. ”Producers have to do something really spectacular to draw in the tourists who are willing to blow $200 on a show they’ve read about and heard about on television. They don’t want to risk spending so much on something they might end up not liking, so you see cartoons made into musical shows and successful films like ‘Footloose’ put on stage,” she said.

She admits that a life dream of hers is to have enough money to help to stage powerful theatrical experiences. ”Shows like ‘Ragtime’ and ‘Aida’ are popular and entertaining, but they’re also good theater, and that’s the kind of thing we ought to be doing,” she said.

WALTER LEE YOUNGER is a character who is fighting for his life, according to Jonathan Majors, who plays that role. ”Walter Lee is the only man in his family. Except for his young son, he’s the only male. Even his name makes him little,” Majors said. ”His father was ‘Big Walter,’ and he is only ‘Walter Lee.’ His mother wants him to be the man of the family, but she also wants to tell him what to do and how to do it, and she holds the money. It isn’t easy.”

Walter Lee faces self-accusation, in nearly every corner of his life, according to the actor who portrays him. His son has to sleep on the couch in the living room, because he can’t afford a bigger place to live. His adult sister has to share a room with her mother. Majors points out that the playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, was upper middle class, not poverty-stricken. ”Her father was a real estate agent,” he said. ”They tried to move to a safer suburb, and she was spat upon and has things thrown at her, like the characters in her play, even though she had more material wealth than they did.”

The young actor is a graduate of the North Carolina School for the Arts, and he is currently entering his second year as an MFA candidate at the Yale School of Drama. He says at this point, he imagines that he would most enjoy acting in films or television, but he’s open to almost any experience which can help him to advance.

Majors has never acted in ”Raisin” before, although he has read it and heard a lot about it. ”It’s one of those plays like ‘Hamlet,’ ” he said. ”People read it and have seen it, but very few have acted in it.” He said that if he had his way, this play and much more theater would be more accessible to people who can’t afford live theater, and who may face barriers to attending plays, including the fact that they’re not performed physically close to many people. The drowning out of serious dramatic films by action and reality programming which responds to challenges by shooting people is also part of the problem, he said.

”This is a play which is about so much more than just the African-American situation,” the actor said. ”It’s about relations between the sexes and relations between generations. It’s about economic differences and lack of opportunities. There probably isn’t a person in the world who couldn’t find a situation in this play which he’s dealing with in his own life.”

CHRISTIAN DE MARAIS is playing probably the most controversial character in this production. He is playing Karl Lindner, the white suburbanite who visits the Youngers, hoping to pay them not to move into his neighborhood. Interestingly, Lindner is the only character from ”Raisin in the Sun” who is also part of the cast of ”Clybourne Park.”

De Marais is a handsome young man, with an aristocratic quality to him, which probably helps him to portray a character who won’t admit it to himself, but who believes he is better than many other people.

The actor is preparing to enter his final year of the graduate program at the Tisch School of the Arts, at New York University, and he has numerous credits, both in New York and at regional theaters.

”It would be easy to play Lindner as a villain,” the actor said. ”Of course, he is a villain to some degree, but he has to believe that he’s doing the right thing. In order to respect themselves, people need to convince themselves that the things they do are the right things to do. Lindner has dreams, too. He has grown up in a world where his ideal dream would be one without people like the Youngers. The prejudice happens to be African Americans. It could be Jews or Catholics or just about any other minority you might want to name.”

”I have to truthfully admit, rehearsals for this play are the only experiences I have had, in which I am in the minority, and that is teaching me about my character’s weaknesses and fears,” he told me.

”Just because this play takes place 60 years ago, doesn’t mean it doesn’t deal with problems people are dealing with today,” he said. ”I hope your readers will come out and give this production a try. I think they’ll be glad that they did.”

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