Saturday, November 16, 2013

Oakland School for the Arts presents Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun this weekend

Robert Cornn as Walter Lee Younger; Kreona Turner
as Lena Younger (Big Mama)

K. Turner and R. Cornn; Nia Lundkvist as Ruth Younger
(to Walter's right), Brittani McBride as Beneatha at table

Friday morning, after an exciting opening night performance, November 14, 2013, the cast and director of the OSA's production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, join us on the air for an engaging conversation about the themes and issues raised by this work which in many ways mirrors Hansberry's life in Chicago as well. The playwright's father was a real estate broker who also owned rental property. Hansberry would go with him to collect rents and in this work, the Younger family is like many of the families she met then. This family's desire to own a home and the resistance this is met with is also true to Hansberry's experience.

The playwright wrote of sitting near the window at a home her father bought in a white neighborhood when a brick crashes through the glass just where she'd been seated moments before.

I kept forgetting that these young actors are in their teens and even younger, yet they embody all the passion and pathos of a family where a man of 35 has dreams which are deferred indefinitely, as his wife wants to feel happy about a new life she carries in her womb, but the clouds rain in her living room daily. Sodden, she can't seem to shake the chest cold that is drowning her, and then there is Beneatha, little sister and college student whom of all the adult Youngers has a vision she just might achieve, and then there is Mama Younger, who holds the family together, dotes on her grandson, Travis, and believes in the capacity of this family step into all that they are capable of and worthy of.

Sounds neat on paper, but the Youngers have a volatile relationship with each other. The clothes basket with a spool of yarn and knitting needles stay inside as Mama and Ruth fold towels almost daily. It's as if the adage about idle hands hangs in the balance without luck.

What is wrong with wanting better? Why must the Youngers be satisfied with watching the world turn, actually pushing this world on its axis without ever getting a chance to enjoy the ride? It is sad that so many black American families, good people, like the deceased Mr. Walter Younger, work themselves into an early grave under the assumption that working hard or harder would somehow lift their families from poverty.

The happiness promised all who live in this democracy is not available to everyone. Walter Lee speaks often of the price tag attached to it--happiness. This price is often paid for in blood because truly money cannot purchase tolerance and peace, it cannot erase bigotry and violence for those black families like the Youngers who would dare dream beyond the plantation or ghettos society defines as their geographic space or place for living and dying.

Look today at the blood running through the streets in Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, Richmond, California. Look at the new prisons being built for the Walters and their sons who decide working hard is not worth the effort--why not just take until one is taken, either by the police, another person like themselves or by death which gets us all in the end, some sooner than others.

A Raisin in the Sun perhaps performed by a young ensemble illustrates more than an adult cast how precarious such a notion, hopelessness is for a man who has almost lost all respect for himself. Such a man has nothing to lose. Walter Lee has not forgotten his dad, his father's tired entry into the home late in the evening and his defeated exit from their lives before he could share with his son, his youthful dreams.

A beautiful moment in the play is when Walter Lee takes a few days off from work to think --he borrows a car and drives to areas in Chicago he has not visited before. He parks and people watches and dreams. The imagination is powerful--it can lift one from despair and it can also annihilate one too. Yet, when one despairs one's thinking becomes flawed and inaccurate, opening Walter up to heartache because he is desperate.

What we call patsies or easy marks are groomed and easy prey for hunters who see the scarlet letter emblazoned on such hearts. This is why the net stays full and one can invest in future generations to keep the process going. It is a lot like inheriting season tickets to an execution. Perhaps it's a legacy that we need to terminate, as Mama Younger does when she takes the blood money and purchases a new life for her family in a strange land.

Mama Younger understands the value of travel, how a new place presents an opportunity for veteran explorers and Walter Lee, her son, is ready we note when he speaks of his recent travels beyond the confines of his square block existence.

When Walter Lee asks what is wrong with wanting pearls to grace his wife's neck, we know he is already there, so when under an illusion he betrays his mother's trust and breaks down in front of his family in shame, the front row discreetly wipes away tears while I let my roll down my cheeks.

We understand the cycle of despair that permeates the walls like the roaches the family tries to get rid of but can't. Their lives are infestation. They have to move. They have to give back what they have held onto for so long, leave the shallow end of the pool and swim or die.

It has come to that. The new life Ruth is carrying represents the future and the fact that this father cannot celebrate the potential for this life to thrive, is something the audience needs to pay close attention to. What is Hansberry staying here about black men, the Youngers and by extension, black family life in America?

Amazing performance. 

Walter Lee is such a frustrated man, full of so much potential without capital to invest in it. Some dreams come with price tags and all Walter Lee's do.

Within the tapestry of black life Hansberry spins here we meet three other men and a forth is mentioned in conversation. We hear of Walter Lee's nightly strategy sessions with his friends, other black men who want better lives, who do not accept their sentencing or the geographic setting they seem destined to occupy. They meet to develop blueprints for another theatre, one where the director looks like them, believes in them and sees with them beyond the stifled capacity that is black manhood in America.

This is echoed in Hansberry's introduction of a character, Joseph Asagai, a Yoruba man who loves Beneatha, Walter's sister.  His presence speaks to the fact that black life has a longer history than what immediately comes to mind: sharecropping, migration, and more urban sharecropping or neo-slavery. His story is one of resistance. It is 1957. Ghana has successfully rid itself of the parasitic British empire under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah.

And then there is George Murchison who is a wealthy young black man. He has none of the problems he sees in the Younger household as his father can buy access to places Walter dreams of entering. George knows there is no equal society, but he doesn't seem to care as it doesn't affect him adversely. He doesn't buy into the notion that education can change the social fabric of American society for those excluded, yet he plans to participate bolstered by his dad's capital.

His world has its own orbit peopled by the Youngers and others like them. The only difference is, for George his encounters with white America are different because his father has power or wealth. For those of us who know the story, we know that the power dynamic is uneven and unfair even here, yet from Walter Lee and George's perspective, the lines are clearly divergent when the Youngers represent a truer picture of what America thinks about its black citizens. It is here that Beneatha's militancy coupled with a sweet naivete speaks to this riff between the two halves.

Money cannot buy happiness Walter learns, but it certainly makes life a lot easier to swallow.

OSA's production, which runs tonight through Sunday afternoon, (7 and 2 p.m.) continues its theme this year: Many Voices, One Spirit. In this revised version of the play (completed after the Broadway premiere), the students use language a bit too incendiary for audiences at that time, perhaps presently as well. It is real talk, the kind of real talk absent in the political discourse where compromise and concession rob the truth of its teeth.

William Grant Still (1895-1978), the "dean of African American classical composers" highlight the tension and provide segues between scenes and acts.

The set is a large apartment with two bedrooms off the main room, a small step up kitchenette with the only window, where a flowering plant sits. The lighting creates a beautiful atmosphere, especially towards the end when it highlights, literally the polarities that exist between the two warring siblings, Mama Younger and Ruth.  The blocking and use of the stage especially the edges where the actors seem to be speaking directly to us--those of us on the front row can literally reach out and touch them (but we don't --smile), adds to the dramatic effect of the piece.

Obviously, the Youngers are a family in crisis. Walter is about to explode and if not for the promise of the check, insurance money paid for his dad's death, who knows what would happen or what could happen if the money does not solve his needs. 

For tickets and information visit

OSA's theatre entrance is on 19th Street, around the corner from the Oakland Fox Theatre, just mid-block.
To hear the OSA's cast speak about the play visit


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