By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In this landmark work, the first play by a black woman ever to reach Broadway, scenes get as emotionally raw as in anything by Eugene O'Neill. But at the performance reviewed, the audience kept laughing in places where they shouldn't. Not nervous tittering—long, sustained, hooting guffaws. It threw off the actors' timing, particularly toward the end as the Youngers learn that Walter Lee has lost most of the money they're counting on.
The third act of Raisin is one of the most intensely sad, deeply poignant pieces of writing in American theater. The AART cast members, all wonderful, certainly aren't playing it for comedy. The only flaw in their performances is a tendency to deliver lines upstage in a whisper, rendering some words inaudible to all but the front rows.
What possibly could have prompted the inappropriate response to characters who feel confined by race and class? Walter is a chauffeur, tired of kowtowing to rich white people. Lena and Ruth are domestic workers. Beneatha experiments at finding her "identity" as a black woman, wearing Kinte cloth, letting her hair go natural, dating a Nigerian—radical behavior in the 1950s, but almost quaint today.
In 1959 the play pre-dated desegregation and the Voting Rights Act. The Youngers' hopes of home ownership are nearly derailed by a white neighborhood association fearful of what a white lawyer (Jack O'Donnell) calls "you people."
With a black family in the White House, all that does now seem long ago and far away. But even if the issues raised in A Raisin in the Sun are dated, that doesn't mean the play and the artists performing it don't deserve a little more respect.