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.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jimmy Fowler