A plum in the sun

"Racism is a device that, of itself, means nothing," says a character from Lorraine Hansberry's unfinished African liberation drama Les Blancs. "It is simply a means, an invention to justify the rule of some men over others." The character, however, goes on to confuse his listener by declaring that racism remains a very meaningful force. Just like every other kind of bigotry used to justify discrimination, the speaker declares, "It is pointless to pretend that it doesn't exist--merely because it's a lie."
African-American activist and playwright Hansberry was keenly aware of the lies that somehow manage to be potent instruments of domination--that whites are superior to blacks, that Jews are pre-Christian savages (she was briefly married to Jewish intellectual Howard Nemiroff, a relationship that partially inspired her Greenwich Village morality play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window), and that homosexuality is unnatural (Hansberry divorced Nemiroff a year before her death from cancer at 35 and was preparing to publicly declare her lesbianism).

The characters in her first and much-celebrated urban drama A Raisin in the Sun, given a simple but potent staging at the Dallas Theater Center to mark the script's 40th anniversary, are either chasing a lie (that a bigger home and more money will relieve them of the misery brought by their skin color) or fighting a lie (that dark skin and African features have made them deserving of their second-class status). As with all ingrained illusions, these are made legitimate not by evidence but by belief, which is zealously guarded by frightened individuals who think their very futures are on the line.

Maybe these innate beliefs explain the overall subtlety and surprising freshness of A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry could perhaps have been excused for fetishizing racism, which was baldly manifest in the Jim Crow laws of 1954, but she was in pursuit of more elusive game here. While not shortchanging the plight of poor blacks (Hansberry grew up in a prosperous household; her father owned real estate), the playwright lifts the lid of race to poke at the fear that can corrupt all human hearts. This is why her handful of stage and screen scripts lack the stridency that has dated so many other black writers who emerged in the '60s. Hansberry grants a degree of dignity to even her most reprehensible creations, if only by the refusal to unload all the frustrations of being a minority on top of them.

You can almost draw parallels between Lindner (Gary Taggart), the condescending Anglo who comes to the Chicago apartment of the impoverished Younger family in an attempt to buy them out after they've purchased a small house in his neighborhood, and Walter Lee (Billy Eugene Jones), the Youngers' restless, short-tempered grown son. Walter Lee, sick of his job chauffeuring other people around, desperately wants to use a fat insurance check from his father's death to co-purchase a liquor store but is thwarted by iron matriarch Lena (Irma P. Hall), who puts a down payment on the house instead. When Lindner makes an offer that will profit the Youngers, he is "protecting" his future at the expense of an atrocious act; when Walter Lee seriously considers accepting and tossing his pride out the window to get the money, he does the same. Both are motivated by fear of an unknown tomorrow.

The conflict over use of the insurance check, and later, whether the family should inhabit the house Lena has chosen, sets off all kinds of internecine scuffling among the Youngers, who were already suffering from acute cabin fever in their southside "roachtrap" before the money issue was ever raised. Set designer Donald Eastman has created a fine, grimy urban shell, constantly being scrubbed by the family, for these face-offs. Visiting director L. Kenneth Richardson, a co-founder and former artistic director of Crossroads Theatre Company, the largest black theater in the United States, has elicited from his fine cast a balance of urgency and comfortable familiarity, affection and hostility.

Just as there is no love like a family's love, no other hate can quite match when blood relations collide: Walter Lee and his outspoken sister Beneatha (April Yvette Thompson) graduate from typical sibling friction to outright mutual contempt as he grows more desperate to escape his meager material circumstances and she chafes against the intellectual limitations expected of her race and gender. Jones and Thompson are spirited, sometimes even scary in their defiance and moving in their occasional admissions of self-doubt. Former Dallas schoolteacher and film, TV, and stage veteran Irma P. Hall is majestic as the Youngers' controlling but not untouchable Mama: She brought the house to tears with the slow agony she drags kicking and clawing out of herself when Walter's greed finally, tangibly impacts the family's future.

For my money, the most affecting performance here is the quietest: Yvette Ganier is sublime as Ruth, Walter Lee's loyal wife who finds herself hanging on with both hands as her husband yanks at her patience with caustic words and reckless behavior. Ganier shuffles her character's real emotions--anger, lust, pain, even a bit of acquisitiveness--beneath a well-trained surface of politeness. She keeps us spellbound watching as she juggles feelings that tangle and untangle themselves throughout the production.

The biggest criticism you could level against A Raisin in the Sun was contained in George C. Wolfe's famously scathing satire "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play" in his sketch revue The Colored Museum. Wolfe eventually uses this short play as an indictment of white audiences who cluck their tongues sympathetically at black crises on stage and then do nothing about it in real life. Along the way, he makes withering fun of a black family whose "brow is heavy with three hundred years of oppression" and whose dreams are mere "middle-class aspirations." There remains the feeling that Hansberry has taken upon her shoulders the entire burden of the African-American experience, from slave ships to civil rights, and the script stumbles in this regard with some of the supporting characters. Beneatha's suitors--rich, superficial George (Luis LaPorte, Jr.) and wise, upright African Asagai (Nathan Hinton)--seem written more to make a point than to live as fully realized men onstage.

But "middle-class aspirations" are the most fragile, touchingly human part of the Youngers, and since many black Americans still struggle for economic parity decades after achieving legal equality, Hansberry's drama may remain relevant for a long time to come.

A Raisin in the Sun runs through February 14. Call (214) 522-TIXX.

Medea lite
A talented young crew of performers, who have past associations with Fort Worth's Stage West, have returned to that University Drive theater in a second incarnation--Moonwater Theatre Company. The first identity of a group that includes Jakie Cabe, Deborah Kirby, and Chuck Huber was Fuzzy Logic, a late-night improvisational troupe whose performers claimed in the press material to have created a new kind of theater. If you have to be told that, you can't help but be suspicious of it. My schedule didn't permit me to see Fuzzy Logic, but I can vouch that the newly christened Moonwater has conjured up an entertaining, sometimes eerie adaptation of Euripides' Medea that never takes itself as seriously as some will probably insist it should.

The Greek legend of the sorceress who murders her own children to spite seafaring hubby Jason after he throws her away for a sweet young thing with ties to the throne has had many incarnations throughout the centuries--the last three years alone have seen an indie flick called Mama Medea, set on the rough streets of Chicago, and Medea: The Musical, a backstage comedy suffused with gay humor that has played long runs on the West Coast. Hell, Euripides himself was tinkering with someone else's material when he--a cave-dwelling misanthrope who eschewed civic and religious duty, as some historians claim--scribbled Medea back in 431 B.C.

Moonwater Theatre Company took the man's script, and through rehearsals heavily affected by these artists' affinity for improvisation, came up with a deliberately anachronistic production that mixes not only chunks of Euripides' original text with newly written passages but also invests Corinth, the kingdom where Medea and Jason's tragedy unfolds, with some pretty contemporary amenities like nightclubs, tabloid reporters, and '60s-style British folk singers.

Indeed, we get a good early explanation of why proud Medea (a crisp and bold Deborah Kirby) spins so out of control: When Jason (Chuck Huber) leaves her for the daughter (Dawn Swearingen) of the king (Jakie Cabe, who also directed the show); it's an instant headline on every TV station and sidewalk newsstand. Ditto the decision by the king to banish Medea and her two sons out of fear. Her reputation for homicidal magic, used against her own father and brother, preceded her to Corinth. After securing refuge in Athens with touring singer-songwriter Aegeus (Chuck M. Jackson), she sets out to destroy what her enemies, Jason and the king, hold most dear.

Moonwater's Medea has some exciting scenes, such as a confrontation between the title character and Jason at a nightclub in which she enchants the other patrons, causing them to echo her recriminations against Jason. Nice, too, is the restraint displayed by these actors when turning into the kind of stock characters that improvisation summons: Medea's lawyer has a James Carville-ish Southern accent, her savior Aegeus a stoned Brit's drawl. Jackson, who plays both characters, doesn't throttle us with his dead-on impressions. Similarly, Cabe emerges as a Texas-twanged preacher delivering a sermon on the woes of parenting. The audience laughed at first, but the sincerity with which Cabe spoke abruptly brought us back to the gravity of the themes, and we were moved. Big moments and little touches like these don't add up to an especially profound Medea, but they do offer a splashy, comic-book rendering of a literary warhorse.

Medea runs through February 6. Call (817)


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