By Lorraine Dusky
Lorraine Hansberry’s dazzling drama about a black family coming hard up against the shameful bigotry endemic in America, “A Raisin in the Sun,” is set in the recent past — five years after the Montgomery bus strike, four years before the Birmingham bombing of a black church, a few years before the sit-ins, marches and race riots of the ’60s.
That doesn’t mean it’s a period piece from another era. “Raisin” is a stellar addition to the canon of American theater that every generation ought to appreciate, even if the theme is uncomfortable to some: the long arm of racism in America, land of the free. Lydia Fort’s vibrant direction of the current production at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor lets the acid truth of “Raisin” shine with its biting dialogue and flashes of wit.
“Raisin” tells the story of a hard-working black family living in a tenement who is coming into an insurance windfall of $10,000 — equivalent to $88,500 today. The battle that ensues is over how it will be spent.
Everybody in the family, except the 10-year-old Travis (Kaden Amari Anderson), has his or her own big idea about where the money should go. The eldest son, Walter Lee (Chauncy Thomas) wants to leave his safe-but-demeaning job as a rich man’s chauffeur and invest in a liquor-store where he imagines he will make a killing; his sister Beneatha (Cassia Thompson) wants a chunk set aside for her education; the matriarch, Lena (Cooki Winborn) hopes to move the family to a place where they own the boards on which they walk. Walter Lee’s wife Ruth (Erin Margaret Pettigrew) is caught in the middle of the roiling tension and would just like to have a better, more peaceful life.
While aspirations simmer like stew on the stove, Lena buys that dream house in a white neighborhood. In walks reality in the form of The Man, the White Man, that is. He is Karl Lindner from the neighborhood improvement association, and he will buy them out — at a profit! Joe Pallister plays him coolly as not quite a smug white bastard, but a segregationist who imagines himself just a reasonable man, even as he keeps brushing his hat and clothes off, as if the family’s blackness left dust on his being.
Thomas, memorable in Bay Street’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” a few years ago, again delivers a full-throated, explosive performance, this time as Walter Lee. Just as noteworthy as Lena is Winborn—who was also in “Mockingbird ” — who goes from restrained, lovable matriarch to a majestic monument of strength.
Though the subject is serious. Hansberry does not spare the wit, much of it coming from the animated performance of Thompson as sister Ruth. She is at the forefront — in 1959 — of the movement to celebrate black heritage. Her two boyfriends represent the opposite poles of her choices. One is Joseph Asagai (Jonathan Farrington), a Nigerian who wants to take her back to Nigeria as his wife, and the other, George Murchison (Michael Chenevert), has most assuredly already assimilated himself into the white culture.
While the original play is longer and two acts, this version is pared down to one 90-minute act for Bay Street’s Literature Live! program that acquaints students from all over Long Island with theatrical productions of classic stories. Yet the power of the drama and the eloquence of the dialogue is not lost in this shortened version. Scene changes in the one-room set, superbly appointed by Courtney Alberto, happen in a flicker with the darkening of light and the many costume changes of the characters.
Hansberry’s play is based on her own experience, as her parents, who were black, bought a house in 1937 in a white section of Chicago. As she would write, “My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court.”
Having grown up myself in one of the most famously segregated cities in the North, Dearborn, Michigan, the play reminded me of what I know about my shameless hometown whose motto was “Keep Dearborn Clean.” Emblazoned on all the cop cars, it was code for a more dire meaning. I was there in the ’60s —a few years after “Raisin” was on Broadway — when a black family moved in as the house was pelted with eggs and tomatoes and the cops stood around doing nothing. The mayor’s overt racism ultimately landed him with federal charges, but he was acquitted by a jury made up of people from — you got it — Dearborn. All white, of course.
With racism on the rise in America, with the deplorable memory of Charlottesville’s 2017 turmoil still fresh in our minds, with the Charleston church shooting targeting blacks four years ago, the El Paso Walmart shooting targeting Mexicans earlier this year, with racial incidents happening right in Sag Harbor, how far have we actually come?
Sag Harbor boasts one of the few historically black summer colonies in America; the district, referred to as SANS includes the Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah neighborhoods and recently received state recognition as such. While that is commendable, what it acknowledges is the historic division in housing delineated by race. In Sag Harbor, when I got here in the ’70s, the whites lived close to downtown, the blacks lived near the edge of the village line.
That is breaking down with the march of time. Three years ago my husband and I sold our home in the historic (white) section of town, and moved to Ninevah Beach, a historically black neighborhood that is becoming less so. In that time, a few ugly racial incidents perpetuated by whites — renters, I presume — have occurred here, at the same time we have felt welcomed. What better place on Long Island could there be for “A Raisin in the Sun” to be staged? I can think of none.
The night I was at Bay Street — last Friday — the audience was small, but the show was big. We gave it a standing ovation. Though designed for teens, what is going on at Bay Street is damn fine theater for anyone over the age of 10.
Public performances of “A Raisin in the Sun” are Thursday to Saturday, November 21 to 23 at 7 p.m. plus a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. Thanksgiving weekend shows are Friday and Saturday, November 29 and 30 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Sunday, December 1 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $55 at baystreet.org or 631-725-9500.
On Saturday, November 23, at 11 a.m., Bay Street Theater will host “Race: Then and Now, There and Here: A Community Discussion.” Moderated by Sag Harbor resident Ken Dorph, panelists include: The Reverend Kimberly Quinn Johnson, Minister of the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of the South Fork; The Reverend Kirk Lyons, Pastor, Vanderveer Park United Methodist Church; Brenda Simmons, Executive Director of the Southampton African American Museum; Steve Williams, President of Azurest Property Owners. The one-hour panel discussion is free and while no tickets are required, please RSVP to Allen O’Reilly, email@example.com or 631-725-0818 ext. 213.
The conversation will continue over lunch at Page on Main Street from noon until the performance of “A Raisin in the Sun” at 2 p.m. Lunch is at cost and tickets for the 2 p.m. or other performances are available at baystreet.org.