A half-century after it was written, Lorraine Hansberry’s singular masterpiece is more relevant and thought-provoking than ever. Directed by Weyni Mengesha (in a production currently being enjoyed by Calgarians before moving to Toronto’s Soul Pepper Theatre) the script’s broader context is thoughtfully crafted and should soon find its inner rhythm, leaving successive audiences more fully involved with the human turmoil created by unrealized dreams and the twentieth century reality of breaking through the bonds of systemic racism only to be shackled with the chains of economic superiority.
Set in Chicago’s Southside (tellingly “sometime between World War II and the present”) Hansberry must have sensed the universality of her family-oriented narrative that knocked down an impressive array of cultural barriers when it opened on Broadway in 1959 (notably the Great White Way’s first-ever play by a black woman, realized by a black director—Lloyd Richards).
In the early scenes, a sense of racial divide existed between the ensemble cast and the predominantly white audience (in 2008, is this still a subject that will draw today’s black population into the theatre?). But that was abruptly shattered (and the first act shifted up a gear) with Mama Younger’s (Alison Sealy-Smith) enraged slap-on-the-face of her daughter, Beneatha (Cara Ricketts) as the twenty-year-old med-school hopeful denounced the existence of God. Suddenly, we were all on the same team.
Sealy-Smith went from that pivotal moment to drive the action forward as her character struggles to decide what will be best for her family when the life insurance payout from her husband arrives. Everyone has their eyes on the cash. Only-son Walter Lee (Charles Officer delivers the emotionally charged lines with gusto) sees the $10,000 as his ticket out of a dead-end life: he chauffeurs a white man but is driven to despair by the daily dose of servitude. With the windfall, he has big plans to become a moneyed entrepreneur beginning with the purchase of a liquor store—his partners are two equally-desperate ghetto dwellers. His sibling professes no interest in her mother’s small fortune, but her hobby-du-jour interests and ongoing education could readily devour the whole lot.
Ruth (Abena Malika crafts a compelling characterization), Mama’s long-suffering daughter-in-law, is unexpectedly pregnant adding another long-term budget item to the already over-stretched family accounts. Her ten-year-old son Travis (engagingly brought to life by Kofi Payton), forced to sleep on the living room couch and lead the daily charge to the communal bathroom, narrowly dreams of becoming a bus driver but if his hormones begin to rage while still living in a surfeit of poverty and lack of privacy he may—like thousands of others from any race—take his chances and false pride to the comfort and “security” of a gang.
Deeper aspects of the struggle to find identity are fleshed out in the supporting roles. Beneatha has two suitors. Michael Blake blazes through the role of rich kid George Murchison—using convincing understatement—even as he realizes that his impressive bank account and trend-setting attire will never be enough to sample the hot-tempered delights of Bennie. Hailing from Nigeria is Joseph Asagai (Awaovieyi Agie is ideally cast but requires a couple more trips to the diction shed to share all of his calm philosophy of life with everyone). He is skilfully employed to demonstrate how out of touch many black North Americans may be with their heritage yet still have the basic love and lust desires of any human being.
In the busybody-neighbour category comes Mrs. Johnson (Barbara Barnes-Hopkins is superb). Although cut from the original Broadway production—apparently to save money—her brief scene is central to the perception of “uppitiness” as the Youngers prepare to move out of their cockroach-infested “rat trap” to an all-white neighbourhood. The dialogue’s mixture of scorn and envy is a dramatic tour de force. Building up to this key moment, Mengesha and her ultra-capable design team (most notably Scott Reid’s “you-are-there” set) utilize a series of snippets of daily life, letting the audience peer voyeuristically through the tenement’s windows as the main stage is prepared for the next. A Romanesque dump of water onto the street is a brilliant touch.
Finally, representing the “hard-working” citizens of the Younger’s first home that will have sunshine and a backyard, is Karl Lindner (Stephen Hair). The good Christian offers to pay the Youngers more than they did if only they’d scrap their plans to move in “where you are not wanted.” That offer becomes the catalyst to everyone’s identity and raises the perennial question: What price would you be willing to pay to realize your dream?
Having abandoned the South generations ago, the Younger clan sought safety elsewhere, only to be confronted with the grim reality that you can run but cannot escape the frequently catastrophic effects of human greed.
There is no better example than the current capital-market meltdown that has added countless millions to the ranks of the “takers and the tooken,” giving this timely production a currency that money can’t buy. JWR