Stage: Wednesday,May 29, 2003
A Raisin in the Sun
Thru June 8 at Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main St, FW. $14-20. 817-338-4411.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Prune Juice

Jubilee’s Raisin in the Sun is good for you — and powerful, too.

By JIMMY FOWLER

There are certain 20th-century American plays that have calcified from classics to what might be called artistic duties — theaters feel that these old standbys must be revived regularly, and theatergoers will attend these works out of something like cultural fealty. Again. A single African-American entry exists in a pantheon that includes Our Town, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Death of a Salesman. But what contemporary audiences may have forgotten is that Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which was a huge Broadway success in 1959, was labeled passé by some black artists and intellectuals not long after the lights came up on the original production. Afrocentrism and black nationalism were strong community undercurrents well before they erupted into mainstream awareness in the 1960s. And what was widely hailed (by white critics) as the greatest script produced by a black writer featured a squabbling ghetto family whose major aspiration seemed to be moving into an Anglo neighborhood. Not exactly the stuff of which Black Power is made.

Admittedly, I wasn’t thrilled at the thought of seeing another Raisin (I’d seen the play twice before on stage and once on the small screen), this time at Jubilee Theatre. But a combination of venue and, under director Sharon Benge, spot-on timing by a perfectly selected cast made this the most desperately energetic, engrossing version I’ve seen to date. What is normally a hindrance to Jubilee’s more ambitious shows — the company’s “stage,” which is a small, half-moon-shaped slice of the floor — turns Hansberry’s cramped Chicago apartment into a pressure cooker of family rage and resentment. A few years back, Dallas Theater Center was able to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into a quality production whose elaborate set stretched across the Kalita Humphreys stage. But money can’t buy the kind of dramatic tension Jubilee’s performers summon in their small, spartan environment.

Raisin revolves around the competing agendas created by a $10,000 life insurance check bequeathed to imperious matriarch Lena (Mary Catherine Keaton-Jordan) by her late husband. Her cynical schemer of a son, Walter Lee (Wilbur Penn), wants to invest in a liquor store and get rich fast; his weary wife Ruth (Eleanor T. Threatt) yearns for a bigger place so their son (DeAndre Lawson) doesn’t have to sleep on the couch every night; and Walter’s outspoken younger sister Beneatha (Ebony Marshall, in exquisite smart-ass mode) eyes a degree in medicine. The grinding frustration of being black in pre-Civil Rights America is alluded to with subtle frequency, stoking the family’s feuds, until a white stranger arrives to throw the hard truth directly in their faces.

There has always been a question about whether Raisin is mama Lena or son Walter’s play. In one of his memoirs, Sidney Poitier, who starred as Walter in the 1961 movie, wrote of considerable creative tension between himself and Hansberry during the film shoot; he wanted Walter’s machinations in the foreground, while she thought Lena was the dominant character. For Jubilee, director Benge simply lets their stories run parallel and finally intertwine with a natural grace. The black woman has too often been forced to be the center of family guidance and stability, but I’ve always thought Lena’s controlling ways crossed the line. The wonderful Keaton-Jordan may think so, too. Her Lena is no couch-bound saint; she derives at least a little evident pleasure from being the boss. Wilbur Penn is a touch more theatrical than his co-stars, but in the best way; Walter Lee is a character of Shakespearean complexity, a man who recognizes his tumble into disgrace even as he hastens it. The sublime Eleanor T. Threatt, unrecognizable from her hilarious turn as Sister Dukes in last year’s Alice Wonder, gives a beautifully organic performance as Ruth — her body sags, the hope in her eyes flickers on and off, her voice just barely withholds the anger and sorrow of her life in this family. For my money, she’s the show’s quiet center.

Jubilee’s Raisin demonstrates in painful detail how racism can implode a black family, but to say this work is merely about prejudice is too reductive. A larger theme is how deprivation can breed a devouring kind of materialism in almost anyone — those who have very little can easily become obsessed with having too much. As I watched Wilbur Penn’s grand turn as the tragically greedy Walter, I saw a contemporary reflection Lorraine Hansberry could not have foretold — all those “gangsta” hip-hop artists, raised in poor and violent neighborhoods, draping themselves in gold jewelry purchased by the commercialization of crime. Their rank cynicism, unfortunately, keeps the important moral issues raised by the playwright relevant today.



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