Lorraine Hansberrry’s A Raisin in the Sun is among the most iconic works of American theatre, significant both as a work of art and a piece of social history. For a modern theatre company, that iconography is both marketable and a real artistic challenge.
After watching at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company Bruce Norris’s innovative and award-winning Clybourne Park, which is inspired by Raisin, I was in turn inspired to revisit my high school reading list and curl up in bed with Hansberry’s script. Before I could put in a request at the library though, I learned that the Huntington, Boston’s most revered professional theatre company, was staging the classic in concert with Norris’s contemporary riff.
Even better: a live performance.
Director Liesl Tommy, notable for her fresh approach to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is more reverent in her approach here. With the exception of the hip-hop overture, this is period drama. As the set mechanically rotates 360 degrees in near constant but not progressive motion, the Younger’s go through the motions of the familiar story of poverty, racism, and just plain hard life.
Where diverse audiences at Clybourne Park come away feeling complicit in all the various tragedies at work in the saga, as a middle-class white man alive and well in 2013 I had a hard time identifying with these poor black people from a different time. I want to, but somehow I feel like I’m not supposed to. This is somebody else’s story.
It didn’t help that at the performance I attended several actors flubbed lines throughout. Indeed, performances across the board seemed more reminiscent of an ‘80s tv drama than one of America’s leading professional theatre companies.
LeRoy McClain as Walter Lee is a bright spot in this cast. His energy, optimism and naivete drive the tragedy, and when he embodies the baboonish impressions he knows white men feel for him, for a brief moment I got terrifying shivers.
The theatre should be a place of challenge and artistry, a place to see new things in new ways. Every night’s a new performance, every production, a new interpretation.
I’m afraid that with this production of Hansberry’s classic, the Huntington is doing little more than repertory theatre: staging a familiar and important work so we don’t have to read it alone in bed.
A Raisin in the Sun
March 8 – April 7
Avenue of the Arts / BU Theatre
264 Huntington Ave, Boston
Jonathan Simcosky blogs at jonathansimcosky.com