Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Aug 27 – Oct 15, 2022
Playwright: Lorraine Hansberry
Director: Wesley Enoch
Cast: Nancy Denis, Bert LaBonté, Angela Mahlatjie, Zahra Newman, Gayle Samuels, Leinad Walker, Jacob Warner, Adolphus Waylee, Ibrahima Yade
Images by Joseph Mayers
It was 1959 when Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway, telling the story of a Chicago family living in poverty. Lena Younger is waiting for an insurance cheque to arrive, upon the death of her husband. Her son Walter is determined to invest that money in a liquor business, to which Lena has religious objections. The drama is constructed around the $10,000 and how this Black family had needed to lose the head of their household, before they could have a real chance at life.
Appearing between the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, Hansberry’s ground-breaking play was the first by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. With A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry also became the first African-American writer to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, so it is no exaggeration, to state that the cultural significance of the work is truly immense.
63 years on, there is little in the play that has diminished in relevance. In fact, with the exacerbation of wealth gaps everywhere, Hansberry’s observations on economic disparities, are as pertinent as they had always been. Her concerns about racial injustice, at our time of renewed vigour for social activism, retain their resonance. Hansberry’s depictions of women within patriarchal systems, were already modern and sophisticated during her times, so feminists too will have the rare pleasure of seeing intelligent and authentic women in a mid-century play, created many years before the second wave.
Director Wesley Enoch honours beautifully Hansberry’s vision, in a production that feels perfectly appropriate, in its choices to be faithful to an original text, that demonstrates itself to require little to no updating. Enoch ensures that all of the politics in A Raisin in the Sun is accentuated, whilst its humour and drama are harnessed robustly, to deliver a show that proves consistently riveting, involving characters that are as spirited as they are enchanting.
Brimming with charisma is Gayle Samuels, who plays Lena, an older woman who knows the limitations of her only son, but who also understands what he needs, to be able to hold his head high, as a Black man in the United States of America. Samuels’ is a vivacious performance, that conveys both the intensity of emotions for a person in Lena’s position, and the stoicism needed to deal with the challenging circumstances she is given.
In the role of Walter is Bert LaBonté who brings both dignity and fallibility, to a tale of systemic oppression. Equally vulnerable and compelling, as Walter’s wife Ruth, is Zahra Newman whose determination to fortify a role that can easily be misinterpreted as subservient, is admirably judicious. Walter’s 20-year-old sister Beneatha is performed with astute ebullience, and excellent comic timing, by Angela Mahlatjie, another magnetic presence on a stage filled with marvellous actors. Supporting parts feature Nancy Denis, Leinad Walker, Jacob Warner, Adolphus Waylee and Ibrahim Yade; a cast memorable for their dedication and dazzling talent.
Designed by Mel Page, the presentation is suitably traditional in style, having us travel back decades, only to come to the realisation that so little has changed. Verity Hampson’s lights are similarly circumspect, totally devoid of gimmickry, for a taste of a classic theatre form that can still do so much for hearts and minds. Sound by Brendon Boney is subtly rendered, except during scene changes, in which we are given the opportunity to delight in music reminiscent of twentieth-century North America, the kind of which is underpinned by their African diaspora.
It is not often that we immediately think of slavery as a part of Australian colonial history, but the dispossession and displacement of Black peoples on this land, are at least as traumatic, and are certainly as consequential, as those suffered in other places. We do however, have a deficiency in our language, when discussing the nature of prejudice and violations on this land, having experienced colonisation in ways that are different from the United States, where the legacy of slavery has steered so much of discourse in their activism spaces.
It would appear that the way in which white people have pillaged this land, have over the centuries, manifested in modes of obfuscation, and that the (misguided) idea that we were not built on slavery, means that more explicit avenues of castigation, are not available to those seeking redress today. The atrocities are however utterly real, and learning from the fighters who have come before, even those overseas like Lorraine Hansberry, will always be an invaluable part of our strategies in decolonising this so-called Australia.