Public Theater’s Dynamic A Raisin in the Sun Demolishes the Happy Ending

Mandi Masden plays Ruth, Tonya Pinkins plays Lena, and Toussaint Battiste plays Travis in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Robert O'Hara, at the Public Theater.
Mandi Masden, Tonya Pinkins, and Toussaint Battiste in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun at the Public Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: Public Theater’s A Raisin in the Sun

By Ross

A Raisin in the Sun has been called “the greatest and most important American plays ever written.” This time that quote is coming directly from Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, and his notes in the pages of Playbill. It’s a strong statement, and one that feels entirely justified, seeing how it remains after all these years as relevant as it did when it first premiered on Broadway back in 1959. This masterpiece, written by the prophetic, radical artist, Lorraine Hansberry (To Be Young, Gifted, and Black) remains to this day a force to be reckoned with and a play to take very seriously. It has all the juice and power one could hope for, and the fact that Hansberry was a lesbian at the time when labeling yourself as queer was not something one did, especially if one wanted to be a produced writer of the theatre, comes as no surprise, at it feels revolutionary and before and of its time. The power of that sits strong above this play, brought to the stage by director Robert O’Hara (Broadway’s Slave Play) from the Williamstown Theatre Festival, who with utter determination, ushers us deep into the story of one particular American Black family struggling against layers and levels of racism and prejudice to find a space in the world to call their own, either by, possibly starting a business, or maybe, even, by having the audacity to purchase their own home. 

The play is a dynamic undertaking, overflowing with history and relevance. There is a level of intimacy within the walls of this production, shepherding us forward into a broken-down rental apartment in Chicago where this family lives. It’s small and unforgivably broken down, giving space to the racial class dynamics that keep a Black family forever looking downward, rather than up and beyond. So much racism, sexism, and emotional damage have been done to the Younger family weighing them down as if chains are around their necks, as they sit eating and drinking their coffee at the center of this compelling production. The effect is astonishing, shining its spotlight down through the floorboards on all the deep dark systematic problems that burdened the Younger family, yet still exist today, after almost sixty-five years since A Raisin in the Sun first debuted. It’s not a pretty picture, whether you focus inward or out, but in this captivating production, we are given that clear-eyed view, and it doesn’t end with a pretty picket white-fenced happy ending.

Francois Battiste plays Walter Lee, and Tonya Pinkins plays Lena in the off-Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun at the Public Theater.
Francois Battiste and Tonya Pinkins in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun at the Public Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The play digs itself in solidly, thanks to the formidably staging by scenic designer Clint Ramos (2ST/Broadway’s Torch Song), with impeccable costuming by Karen Perry (NYTW’s runboyrun & In Old Age), captivatingly intricate lighting by Alex Jainchill (Audible’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night), and a solid sound design by Elisheba Ittoop (NYTW’s An Ordinary Muslim). We are engaged, asked to bear witness to the holes in their walls, and to ponder exactly how this Black family is kept chained to living, or should I say, existing in a run-down apartment in Chicago with little hope of escaping. The structuring is bleak, with the young grandson, Travis, portrayed by Toussaint Battiste or Camden McKinnon depending on the performance, playing with rats in the street, sleeping on the couch in the living room, and waiting in line for the bathroom. It has been years of living in this manner, and in a way, this existence is the inheritance they are handing down to their children, that is unless they can find a way to escape. And thanks to a life insurance policy payout following the death of the family patriarch, there is light that might shine down on this family, but it isn’t so easily found or played out.

They debate, emotionally and endlessly, over how to spend that payout. Walter Lee Younger, portrayed intensely by Francois Battiste (Signature’s Paradise Blue), wants to invest the money in a liquor store so that he can shift the paternal dynamics into growth from within, fulfilling himself and his role as the man of the house. His mother, Lena Younger, perfectly embodied by the powerful Tonya Pinkins (Broadway’s Caroline, or Change), has a different view of the world and her son, seeing the problems through a different, more female-centric lens. She registers their position most profoundly and has the idea that, for the survival of the family as a whole, she must use the funds to get them out of this rat trap. And even if it hurts her struggling son, she believes with all her heart, rightly or wrongly, that they must use a large percentage of the payout for a down payment on a home in a better neighborhood. That neighborhood is Claybourne Park.

Francois Battiste, Tonya Pinkins, and Mandi Masden in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun at the Public Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Up until that moment, I had forgotten the connection. That this monumental play is what engaged Bruce Norris to write a play named after that neighborhood, produced as a continuation of sorts to Hansberry’s. His Claybourne Park play overlaps and pushes the timeline forward, following events set during and after the dynamic end of A Raisin in the Sun, and is loosely based on a few historical events that did actually take place in that neighborhood of Chicago. It seems that in 1937, Hansberry’s parents bought a house in a white neighborhood known as the Washington Park Subdivision, and subsequently became the center of a legal case (Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 [1940]). That family home, a red brick three-floor at 6140 S. Rhodes, a house that is up for landmark status before the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Historical Landmarks Preservation, is the ultimate final destination in a way. But instead of A Raisin in the Sun ending on a hopeful or optimistic note when the movers come, which is sometimes how the play is read (but not intended), O’Hara doesn’t give in. Through a large impressive deconstruction in the final moments of the Public Theater‘s production, something more cynical is written across the stage. That lowering will definitely make you gasp for some much-needed air, and shift your initial impulse forward into a different stance entirely.

The play itself messes a bit with our heads in a smart intentional manner, teasing out a traditional story about the male head of the house structuring, and then pulling itself back from it. Raisin and O’Hara ask us to shift our traditional focus on what the husband and father might/can/will/should do for his family as its male leader; on Black male ‘brokenness’, we are told. But the intent of the play is something quite different, especially if one looks closely at the play itself. A Raisin in the Sun is really focused on the female members of this family, and all their strength, resistance, and heroism at work every day. Each of these women, whether it is the sister, Beneatha Younger, portrayed dynamically by the captivating Paige Gilbert (Broadway’s The Skin of Our Teeth), who focuses her formula on the future of becoming a doctor; or the hard-working wife of Walter Lee, Ruth Younger, played dynamically by exquisite Mandi Masden (MTC’s Jitney) who sees the difficulties of their communal dilemma and will do everything in her power to protect the whole. That’s a journey worth investing in thanks to the fine work of Masden, and layered up beside the powerhouse Pinkins and her maternal force as matriarch Lena, the memory of Big Bobo Walter’s ambition and the real-time desperation of Walter Lee, fade in importance. And having the ghostly Bobo, played in an out-of-the-box shadowy presence by Calvin Dutton (FX’s “Atlanta“), sliding in and out of the scene makes both an emotionally charged addition as well as a complexity that somehow takes away some of the intensity attached to the decision-making process of grandmother Lena.

Even with those overly structured moments alongside the decision by O’Hara to push Battiste’s Walter Lee out front and center beyond the floorboards to throw out a program at the audience and proclaim, “gonna put on a show for the man,” the force of the women at the core of A Raisin in the Sun never fails to ignite. They, as a trio, grab hold of our collective heart, head, and soul, making it impossible for us to not see their forceful vitality, ghost or no ghost. In those pivotal roles, these women excel. Masden, in particular, demands our attention as she battles her internal demons while fighting for a future that she can envision, even if it will be problematic. Pinkins, in her element, shines an inner light so strong that its hard to fathom, especially during that memorable interaction with the passive-aggressive noodle of a neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, played to delicious perfection by Perri Gaffney (Guthrie’s Familiar). It’s a masterclass of backhanded and overhead volleying that registers all the right notes, from beginning to end, and gives us a match we didn’t know we wanted to watch, until it was right there before us, with pie and coffee on the side.

John Clay III and Paige Gilbert in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun at the Public Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Several of the other performances find their mark, particularly the two opposing men; Joseph Asagai, portrayed unapologetically by John Clay III (Broadway’s Choir Boy), and the beautifully crafted condescending George Murchison, portrayed by Christopher Marquis Lindsay (Trinity Rep’s Gem of the Ocean), who are there, bookended, to try to rescue Gilbert’s Beneatha from the framework of her existence. It’s a complicated unpacking, as we register our own thoughts and emotional responses to these two, but, in reality, it doesn’t feel like, in the end, she will need or even want either of them to save her. But when that man, the one that figures strongly in the future Claybourne Park play, arrives at their doorstep, briefcase and offer in hand, the energy within those walls ignites, triggering them all. It’s an impressive performance by Jesse Pennington (Public’s The Winter’s Tale) as the Claybourne Park welcoming committee Karl Lindner, who welcomes in a way that makes us all sit a little more uncomfortably in our seats as we take it what else he brings with him into their lives.

The final moment of O’Hara’s Raisin is the one that shifts our perception. And one that might have satisfied the frustrated Hansberry more than the original run with audiences leaving thinking that the move is the happy ending everyone was hoping for. O’Hara’s way pulls that rosy idea back and lowers in a new dimension, painting an alternative process across the whole in order to get the more complicated point across. “If he thinks that’s a happy ending, I invite him to come live in one of the communities where the Youngers are going,” Hansberry responded in an interview about the play. It’s an electric altering, one that will never leave your consciousness as it doesn’t let anyone out feeling good about the situation. Systematic racism and hatred live strong within America, to this very day. Don’t be fooled by our traditional ideals and desire for happy endings all around. The red wave didn’t exactly come last week, thankfully, but the overall complexities found within Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun are still very present in our world. That we can’t help but notice. O’Hara just wrote it out for us in red, bold enough and big enough that we can’t pretend we didn’t see.

Francois Battiste, Mandi Masden, Paige Gilbert, and Jesse Pennington in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun at the Public Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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