It was audacious indeed for Williamstown Theatre Festival to select Robert O’Hara as the director of its Summer 2019 production of A Raisin in the Sun. O’Hara is better known as a satirical writer, whose work frequently traffics in recognizable archetypes from Black American theater. Very much not coincidentally, several of these types derive from Lorraine Hansberry’s epochal 1959 play, which for many Broadway audiences was a transformative experience.
In directing Raisin, would O’Hara subordinate his very distinctive, anarchic tone to Hansberry’s signature style of emotionally gripping realism? If not, could the two layers of vision possibly cohere?
There’s no definitive answer to either question. Watching this Raisin was, for me, a bit of rollercoaster ride. Much of it was absolutely thrilling, at once exactly what I’ve always wanted a production to deliver, while also bracingly rethinking the material. At other times, O’Hara’s rethinking is harshly glaring.
Pluses first. The director’s regard for Hansberry’s play is visible from the start, and indeed many of the drama’s issues dispiritingly feel as timely today as they did 60 years ago. These include financial pressures, finding a home you can feel proud of, breaking the cycle of disadvantage very often tied to race, and holding a family together. Few American playwrights have written as poignantly as Hansberry on any and all of them.
At the same time, O’Hara recognizes that the style of the famous original production might not speak so readily to a contemporary audience. Several creator performances—especially Sidney Poitier as the Younger family’s oldest son, Walter Lee, and Claudia McNeil as Lena, the matriarch—are so iconic that they have been frequently copied and even parodied. (See in particular George C. Wolfe’s “Last Mama on the Couch” sequence in his play The Colored Museum.)
O’Hara’s sometimes inspired response here is a Raisin that is often livelier, faster, funnier, and more lightly conversational than the original (at least as seen on film). I especially enjoyed the frequent overlapping cross-talk, which to me really sounds like a family!
Several major performances similarly follow this more low-key approach. Francois Battiste is a much more plausibly ordinary guy than the almost godlike Poitier in his impeccably styled, razor-cut suits. Battiste instead offers a heartbreaking study in realness—hopes built and soon crushed, the difficulties of coping all too palpably clear in his face and demeanor.
As Lena, the superb S. Epatha Merkerson isn’t a towering moral authority, and there’s no trace of Last Mama on the Couch here. Instead, she’s a quiet, slightly fragile, very human mother, trying to navigate an impossible road as best she can. She in particular is revelatory here, and watching these two in conversation, you’ll need to work hard to hold back your tears.
Mandi Masden is marvelous as Ruth, and there’s fine supporting work also from Nikiya Mathis (Beneatha), Kyle Beltran (George), Warner Miller (Bobo), Joshua Echebiri (Joseph), and young Own Tabaka (Travis). Joe Goldammer (Karl) and Eboni Flowers (Mrs. Johnson) have their moments, too, but both sometimes push the extreme and comedic side too far.
That’s the issue, too, for me with O’Hara. At his best, he finds a breathtaking new way to look at Hansberry, while at the same time grounding his choices in the play.
One moment registers in particular—a pivotal sequence when a nearly crushed Walter suggests an ill-advised plan to regain the upper hand after a business deal gone sour. Hansberry’s stage directions are vividly theatrical: “Groveling and grinning and wringing his hands in profoundly anguished imitation of the slow-witted movie stereotype.”
O’Hara and Battiste go so full-throttle here that it essentially becomes a moment of stopped time, something from another kind of theater entirely. You can hear a pin drop in the audience.
In these moments and others, I found myself hoping that there are plans to bring this production to New York. Broadway has seen a couple of high profile Raisin revivals, but none have been as interesting and bold as this one.
I wish I could recommend this Raisin wholeheartedly. But O’Hara’s auteurship, which grows as the play goes on, ultimately puts me off. Two appliquéd images in particular strike me as over-stepping, and more than that, doing significant damage to Hansberry’s play.
The first involves bringing in an actor who silently appears as the ghost figure of Big Walter Younger, a character absent from the play except when mentioned by others. In the very last vignette, he is paired with the image of young Travis.
One of the wonders of Raisin—particularly given when it was written—is how evenly Hansberry balances the sense that the household is the equal domain of men and women; if anything, there’s an argument to be made that the play belongs to its very strong females: Ruth, Beneatha, and most of all, Lena. To superimpose a final vision of a former and (presumably) a future father is to upset that wonderful balance, and reinforce the idea that families are inevitably patriarchies. What Hansberry leaves us with is far more interesting.
One last theatrical stroke by O’Hara is likely to be even more controversial. I won’t say much, since it’s clearly meant as a surprise, but it’s harshly confrontational, and in a single stroke, O’Hara effectively tells us explicitly what Hansberry only implies. It’s an undeniably effective moment in terms of raising the audience’s blood pressure, and many will agree that the conclusion O’Hara reaches is the inevitable end of the story.
But I’m not sure I agree. As an audience member and critic, I appreciate the nuances of ambiguity—more to the point, I think that ambiguity is exactly what the playwright wanted here. In these moments for sure, I prefer my Raisin Un-O’Hara-ized.
A Raisin in the Sun plays through July 13. For more information, visit the Williamstown Theatre Festival website.