Friday, June 22, 2018

Neighborhood Threat! "Raisin" Is a Great Musical, and an Important Story

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2018 at 4:27 PM

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From a technical standpoint I could pick Hattiloo’s Raisin to pieces. The set doesn’t look down at heel, it looks slapped together. The presence of living actors insures that the show's minimal, thoughtful choreography, will sometimes be under-supported by otherwise well-made recordings of a horn-driven, 70’s-era soul-inspired score built to jump off the stage and get up in your life choices. Tracks get the job done though, and, as always, so much of any show’s success depends on material strength and a cast’s ability to leverage it. In this regard everything about Raisin delivers. Music and dancing never undermine the message in this faithfully adapted retelling of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. This story of the Younger family and their struggle to buy an affordable home and possibly start a family business is a subtle, almost generous look at how America and its wealth became segregated. It is a deeply felt family drama that ends with a devastating loss barely tempered with dignity and determination.

Raisin won the Tony Award for best new musical in 1973, and promptly fell off the face of the Earth. A best musical win doesn’t ensure immortality or heavy rotation, but ever since Kiss Me Kate picked up the first best musical trophy in 1949, a win has typically meant Broadway tours, lavish revivals, and some longevity on the regional circuit. Raisin, — a musical described by New York Times writer Clive Barnes as being, "perhaps even better than the [Tony nominated] play" —  just went away. Why?

To answer that question we probably have to go down to the crossroads of real estate and money. It surprises people when I suggest that, for all the edgy content that marches across our stages, our regional theaters are still relatively conservative spaces shaped more by donor/subscriber communities than the broader communities they inhabit.  There's only been so much room for black programming in these spaces and while a gut-wrencher like Raisin or Caroline or Change might get produced once in a while we're more likely to see upbeat revivals of pop-culture touchstones like The Color Purple or sparkly showbiz epics like Dreamgirls. If one must return to the musty old stories, Hansberry’s original drama is accepted canon, and always less expensive to produce than a musical on your second stage.

Thing is, there’s nothing musty about the original, if you pay attention to the whole text, not just the big "amen" lines about not capitulating to people who don’t think you’re fit to share the Earth.

It’s probably fair to say that most folks, liberal and conservative alike, have bought, in some measure, the big lies about segregation and how it continues to exist because people self-select. It's always been malarkey. Contemporary segregation and urban slums were created by single family housing/industrial zoning, by the Federal government’s refusal to insure mortgages to African-Americans, and the inability of African-Americans to obtain credit via the usual channels. It was advanced by public housing back when public housing was nice and park-like and not for poor people, but for exclusively white workers priced out of areas close to job centers. It was further maintained by restrictive covenants insuring that certain properties could only be sold to white buyers. When courts turned on the covenants Neighborhood associations were created. To buy in you had to belong. To belong you had to be white.

As more and more Americans moved out of apartments and into single family homes, the limited amount of property made available to African Americans was typically far more expensive than property being offered to whites. Absent credit, it was sold via a contract system that eliminated equity. One missed payment could result in eviction, with nothing to show for your effort. Families with little discretionary income for upkeep, did sometimes crowd into substandard housing, but decay was always the result of a cruel, deliberately exploitive system backed by customary business practices and law. Though these circumstances are alluded to rather than expressly stated, this is the legal, social and economic environment in which Raisin unfolds, and to get the most out of the musical experience, it’s helpful to divorce ourselves from political myths, and open ourselves to a more complete history.
Raisin isn’t about integration or white flight from the urban core. It’s about a family's struggle to create legacy inside a system designed to prevent it. The family patriarch has died leaving $10,000 in life insurance. Lena, the surviving matriarch wants to sink most of the money into an affordable home in a white neighborhood, not because of the demographics, but because “It was the best [she] could do for the money.” Her son Walter Lee's a chauffeur who wants to invest the money in a family business — a liquor store. Her daughter, pressing against both race and gender norms, has exchanged faith for science and wants to go to medical school. Glimpsing a bigger world she may choose to get out entirely and move to Africa with her foreign-born boyfriend. In the absence of credit or anything more than sustenance income, all these dreams hinge on one pot of insurance money representing the sum total of one man's difficult life. Add to this dynamic a white representative of Clybourne Park’s progressive neighborhood association who’s arrived to negotiate a kinder, gentler way to keep blacks out, and you have all the ingredients necessary for an emotionally honest and devastating primer in how everything went wrong.

Raisin's story is famously inspired by the poetry of Langston Hughes. More crucially it's informed by the Hansberry family's personal experience in court, fighting the restrictive legal covenants and members only neighborhood associations. Hers is a deeply sad but open-hearted critique of the American Dream, a Depression-era fiction embraced by President Herbert Hoover to sell the advantages of single family home zoning where ethnic groups were excluded, over crowded apartment-based urban living where anybody might move across the street.

Hattiloo has told this story before, and told it well. Stagecraft notwithstanding, the musical tops it, if only because it gives great source material a beat and sticks it to your brain like a bubblegum hit on the radio.

At the top of the show I plunged my face into my hands — I couldn’t look. Committed, vibrant performances were at odds with cool, canned music. It just looked silly and I was sure I was in for a night of deadly theater. But the commitment was real. It was relentless. It overcame and the result was so much more memorable than I ever could have ever imagined during those cringe-worthy opening moments.

Raisin’s Lena became an almost instantaneous theatrical archetype. George C. Wolfe brilliantly lampooned that archteype in The Colored Museum's  “Last Black Mama on the Couch” sketch. Hattiloo stalwart Patricia Smith never sits on a couch or plays to type. Her Lena shifts from thoughtful, nurturing and wise, to superstitious, impulsive and tyrannical. She struggles to create security for her family without realizing how restrictive security can be — or how tenuous. Smith exudes maternal virtue, but her’s is a nuanced, warts-and-all take on a part the veteran performer could have easily phoned in.

Director Mark Allan Davis gets top shelf performances from an ensemble cast that includes Rashideh Gardner, Samantha Lynn, Aaron Isaiah Walker, and Gordon Ginsberg. But Kortland Whalum’s leave it all on stage take on Walter Lee Younger is really something to see. Whalum feels nothing lightly and his words and songs land like punches — some weak, flailing and ineffectual, some like haymakers. It’s as rich a performance as I’ve seen in ages, just at the edge of too much but never tipping over.

Walter Lee gets swindled, of course. I don’t think that’s a spoiler given the shopworn material. He’s one more casualty of unstable alternative economies created when people are isolated and shut out of the regular economy. The Youngers may be moving into a Chicago neighborhood but in this moment Walter Lee becomes the embodiment of Hughes’ “Harlem,” and the “dream deferred.” Maybe this gifted, young, imperfect black man who’s trying to do all the things he’s supposed to do but still can’t get ahead, will finally dry up like a raisin in the sun. Maybe he’ll fester like a sore or stink like rotten meat or sag like a heavy load. Maybe he’ll explode. In a beautifully manicured interpretation, Whalum gives you the sense it’s all on the table all the time.

Short take: This Raisin has some real problems. Telling one helluva strong story isn’t one of them.

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