Theatre

It’s an indictment that it has taken more than 60 years to see A Raisin in the Sun – one of the great plays of the English-speaking canon – on the Australian stage. By Cassie Tongue.

A Raisin in the Sun

Gayle Samuels and Angela Mahlatjie in Sydney Theatre Company’s A Raisin in the Sun.
Gayle Samuels and Angela Mahlatjie in Sydney Theatre Company’s A Raisin in the Sun.
Credit: Joseph Mayers

When A Raisin in the Sun made its way to Broadway in 1959 – it was the first play by a Black woman ever to do so, and became the first production in Broadway history to be directed by a Black person, Lloyd Richards – decisions had to be made.

In its intended form, the play ran about the length of most great mid-century dramas. But the show was already facing substantial risks – being a “first” can be fraught when the world around it would still rather keep those firsts out of its spaces – and cuts were made.

When she read the reviews from the white New York critics of the time, the play’s author, playwright Lorraine Hansberry – already, at 29 years old, possessing the keen eye of a world-class dramatist – almost immediately restored most of the cut scenes. Seeing the play in its fullness, you can see why: each scene that was cut for time deepens and clarifies the plot, themes and character. In its original form, this play has very little excess to trim. It’s a beautifully constructed work, executed with a deeply satisfying richness.

We spend the play, now on stage in Sydney, in the Younger family’s worn but well-loved apartment (designed with detail by Mel Page), where they share a bathroom down the hall with other residents, and there are clear hints of violence and volatility outside. Following the death of Big Walter, the family – matriarch “Mama” Lena (Gayle Samuels), son Walter Lee (Bert LaBonté), his wife Ruth (Zahra Newman), daughter Beneatha (Angela Mahlatjie), and Walter Lee and Ruth’s son Travis (shared by Ibrahima Yade and Gaius Nolan) are awaiting an insurance payout of $10,000 – the equivalent of about $100,000 today.

This amount could be life-changing for the Youngers, a working-class Black family in Chicago’s South Side. The money is weighted by grief but could offer a better and more secure life for the family. It could pay for a new home or Beneatha’s college education; she’s studying medicine and is the most politically progressive of the family – arrestingly so for her and Hansberry’s time.

Walter Lee has other ideas. He’s a man haunted by the dreams deferred that Langston Hughes describes in his poem “Harlem”, from which the play’s title is derived – “Does it dry up / Like a raisin in the sun /… Or does it explode?” He wants to open a business and make a mark on the world.

Lee’s angst is one force driving the play. Another is Lena’s ultimate decision – she buys a house for her beloved family. The most affordable home, however, is in a white neighbourhood. At the time, Black families were systematically excluded from home ownership in a variety of ways, including raising rates in Black neighbourhoods to keep owning property an impossibility. While the new house may be a step up, it’s not as safe as it seems.

It’s a strange experience to see such an influential, timeless play decades after witnessing the works shaped by it. Countless onstage families and conflicts have been formed from the Youngers’ DNA. Many stage matriarchs bear a presence and grace that can be directly traced back to Lena Younger, and the ease and musicality of Hansberry’s dialogue is a gold standard many writers strive for.

This production at Sydney Theatre Company is the first professional production of A Raisin in the Sun in Australia. Initially conceived by actor and rising director Shari Sebbens, it is now thoughtfully led by Wesley Enoch, who has a keen sense of balance and a steady hand that guides audiences, like a conductor, through the swelling peaks and quiet valleys of plot, circumstance and connection.

Part of the production’s richness certainly owes to dramaturge Zindzi Okenyo and cultural consultant Charles Allen, as much as to Brendon Boney’s composition and sound design, which moves us through time and space, and Verity Hampson’s lights, which run cold and hot in time with the characters’ emotions. This is a strikingly accomplished production. It honours a legacy that has suffered decades of missed care and attention. It is a loving thing, carefully held, that moves off the stage and directly into your heart.

It’s moving, funny and thoughtfully realised, with a strong foundation in relationship and character, and it has been given depth and insight by a cast of strong actors at the top of their game. Mahlatjie, already a star in her main-stage theatre debut, brings Beneatha a deft complexity and charisma from which it’s nearly impossible to look away. In the role that helped to establish Sidney Poitier, LaBonté delivers a complex performance on a knife-edge of feeling, pulling his years of experience into something wholly remarkable. Newman matches him as his wife, with a studied, lived-in interiority that’s less obvious but no less skilled. Samuels builds her way into formidable Lena scene by scene – when we need her strength and assurance to hold the play together, she more than delivers.

Even in smaller roles, the performances spark with a recognisable realness; there are no theatrical affectations or emotional shortcuts here. Leinad Walker makes much of a nod or glance as George Murchison, who is wooing Beneatha, and Adolphus Waylee as Joseph Asagi, a Nigerian man who also catches Beneatha’s eye, is his more openly expressive, emotionally driven counterpart. Nancy Denis plays a neighbour in the scene that is often still cut for time and gives it substance, her comedic timing sharp and her presence generous. It is a shame we have waited so long for this.

Theatre, much like the broader society in which it operates, often reinforces our most harmful status quos – especially white supremacy. That A Raisin in the Sun is receiving its first main-stage production here 63 years after its Broadway debut is a direct result of institutional racism that has long protected and elevated the white voice at the deliberate exclusion of others. That this deeply overdue production contains the first all-Black cast – aside from its one white character – to ever appear in a Sydney Theatre Company production would be shocking if it weren’t so devastatingly typical.

This is one of the great plays of the English-speaking canon. We are poorer for having never seen it until now, for having never seen our makers tackle it, as they have tackled Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, to make meaning for Australian audiences.

Our theatre community is poorer for silencing Hansberry – and also for silencing generations of artists who might have seen in A Raisin in the Sun a pathway into a culture that has always needed them. 

A Raisin in the Sun plays at Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney, until October 15.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "Straight to the heart ".

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