Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Joe Morton and Sean Combs have all portrayed Walter Lee Younger on Broadway. Given how admired these performers are, it may come as a shock that the character himself is hard to see as admirable when Francois Battiste portrays him in the production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” that opened tonight at the Public Theater, directed by Robert O’Hara.
This Walter is evidently a drunk. Empty beer bottles litter every counter top in the Younger household when the play begins, and Walter seems to take a swig morning, noon and night; occasionally he stumbles around, slurring his words. None of this is in the script; his wife Ruth does complain about his smoking in the script, but not about his drinking.
The portrayal of Walter is one of O’Hara’s many conspicuous choices in this production. Some of his changes work well, especially a couple of outright additions that provide eye-opening historical context for this story of a Black Chicago family deciding to move to an all-white neighborhood. Other O’Hara touches, most also meant to deepen the story, prove to be more distracting.
But what’s most effective about this production of “A Raisin in the Sun” is not the obvious handiwork by the director. It is the core of capable if not always outstanding acting, led by the almost unrecognizable Tonya Pinkins giving a powerful performance as the matriarch Lena Younger. It is also a design team quietly attentive to the inner lives of the characters. Their competence allows Lorraine Hansberry’s craft to emerge, her ability to make a family drama a prophetic piece of social commentary — with issues ranging from redlining to abortion to African colonial struggles to the African-American generational shift — without losing sight of the family.
It would be hard to argue that O’Hara’s Off-Broadway production does more justice to Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece than the most recent Broadway revival, eight years ago, starring Denzel Washington, which was more straightforward; it won three Tony Awards, including best revival and best director (Kenny Leon.) But Hansberry’s 1959 play, the first by a Black woman ever produced on Broadway, proves sturdy enough in this version to be worth a revisit.
It might seem surprising that O’Hara would take on this play at all, judging from some of his previous work as a director and a playwright. His plays “Bootycandy” and “Barbecue” both look at the African American experience in pointed and provocative ways, but do so with some outrageously broad strokes. Entertaining, clever, satiric, trickster comedies, they seem implicitly to mock the kind of earnest realism of plays like “A Raisin in the Sun.” O’Hara’s influence is palpable on Jeremy O. Harris’s more visible “Slave Play” – which O’Hara directed.
But, at the same time, O’Hara also likes to try his hand at classics. This is the third he has directed this year alone, after Richard III at Shakespeare in the Park starring Danai Gurira in the title role, and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at Audible’s Minetta Lane Theater, which O’Hara (slickly) cut in half, and (unwisely) updated so that the characters are living during the COVID lockdown of 2020.
In contrast to the liberties he took with Eugene O’Neill’s play, some of O’Hara’s revisions of “A Raisin in the Sun” can be counted as restorations. There is a scene involving the next-door neighbor Mrs. Johnson (Perri Gaffney) who pays a visit to the Youngers. The scene and the character were cut from the script in the original Broadway production, and left out of the two Broadway revivals. The scene is not essential, but it serves two purposes. Mrs. Johnson is catty and crude, a counterpoint to the Younger family’s decency and race pride; at one point Mrs. Johnson (who is herself Black) uses the n-word, and then quickly apologizes, saying she knows that the Youngers don’t allow that word in their home. Mrs. Johnson also brings the day’s newspaper into the apartment, and tells them about the article “bout them colored people that was bombed out their place” – driving home the high stakes involved in matriarch Lena Younger’s decision to buy a house in a white neighborhood. (Another, brief scene added to the production that puts the plot in historical context is a stunner, but would be a spoiler to describe.)
This production also injects a sense of desperation that’s stronger than in previous productions I’ve seen. This is largely achieved through Clint Ramos’ set, which reveals not just poverty but neglect: peeling wallpaper, flaking paint on the ceiling, a blackened wall near the corner of the room that serves as a kitchen, wooden flooring missing some sections, and the spot-on detail of black smudges in the areas that people touch, such as around the door knob. The landlord clearly hasn’t maintain the property as required by law, including a paint job at regular intervals.
O’Hara places another character on stage, the ghost of Lena Younger’s husband, portrayed mutely by Calvin Dutton in several scenes. If this feels more stagey than some of O’Hara’s other choices, it does serve a purpose: Since the actor is young, it led me to consider that the father must have died relatively young, perhaps from overwork. It is also the director’s way to emphasize how the father remains a presence even in death. When he died, he left his widow a life insurance payment of $10,000, which drives the story. Lena uses some of it to put a down payment on a house in Clybourne Park. She plans to give some of it to her daughter Beneatha Younger to pay for medical school. But her son Walter Lee Younger wants that money to buy a liquor store.
That a liquor store is Walter Lee Younger’s dream makes his portrayal as a drunk an ironic choice by the director. But it is also apt to make him a drinker. It drives home how damaged he is by the society’s racism that has held him back – a reflection of the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem” that gives Hansberry’s play its title:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
…Or does it explode?”
It also helps explain his almost criminally reckless action.
I’ll hold back on spelling out exactly what that is for those people who don’t know the play, but his action now has a palpable effect that’s not in the script. Shortly afterwards, Tonya Pinkins’ Lena acts as if she has had a stroke; her hand shakes uncontrollably; whenever she moves, she limps.
This is another conspicuous touch; it works.
I felt more ambivalent about Walter’s portrayal. His drunkenness makes his turnaround at the end, when “he finally come to manhood today,” as Lena puts it, feel more abrupt, and perhaps not quite as credible.
But still, again thanks to Lorraine Hansberry, when Walter Lee Younger says to Karl Lindner, the white member of the Clybourne Park Neighborhood Association who’s trying to give him cash to stay out of the neighborhood, “Me and my family…we are very plain people…we are very proud people,” it remains one of the most moving moments in all of American theater.
Beneatha (Paige Gilbert) with her two suitors, Joseph Asagai (John Clay III) and George Murchison ( (Mister Fitzgerald)
A Raisin in the Sun
At the Public Theater through November 20
Running time: 2 hours and 50 minutes with one intermission.
Written by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Robert O’Hara
Scenic design by Clint Ramos, costume design by Karen Perry, lighting design by Alex Jainchill, sound design by Elisheba Ittoop, sound system design by Will Pickens, hair and wig design by Nikiya Mathis, video design by Brittany Bland, prop management by Claire M. Kavanah, fight and intimacy direction by Teniece Divya Johnson, and movement direction by Rickey Tripp.
Cast: Francois Battiste as Walter Lee Younger, Tonya Pinkins as Lena Younger, Mandi Masden as Ruth Younger, Paige Gilbert as Beneatha Younger, Toussaint Battiste (Travis Younger), Almeria Campbell(Understudy Ruth Younger/Mrs. Johnson), John Clay III(Joseph Asagai), Vann Dukes(Understudy Moving Man), Bjorn Dupaty(Moving Man), Calvin Dutton (Bobo and ghost), Mister Fitzgerald(George Murchison), Perri Gaffney (Mrs. Johnson), Skyler Gallun(Understudy), Christopher Marquis Lindsay(Moving Man), Camden McKinnon (Travis Younger), Jesse Pennington(Karl Lindner), N’yomi Stewart (Understudy).
Photographs by Joan Marcus