Comparing Performances of “A Raisin in the Sun”

What happens to play about the American Dream? Is it forgotten after one sees it or does it prevails in one’s mind for decades? Can it captivate and become an epic story? Can a play about dreams become history like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun did on its opening night? The answer to all those questions is probably uncertain because this play since 1959 has a special value not only to African Americans, but to anyone who dreams of a better future. A play about fighting obstacles and social issues in the name of hopes and dreams definitely becomes timeless and surpasses skin color. 

Revivals of Raisin have come and gone and the value of its message it is one thing where theatre critics have no question or differences about. However, it seems that when it comes towho interprets Walter it is when play reviewers often use a magnifying glass to qualify the actor because of what the character represents.

African American dreams are often deferred, but fortunately, to Hansberry her dream did come true.  A Raisin in the Sun is a play about failed dreams during a racist struggling period.  Those times are history, and so is what Hansberry did on Wednesday March 4 of 1959, the opening night of A Raisin in the Sun at the Barrymore Theatre.  What she did was a “miracle” according to the article “DramatistAgainst Odds” by Nan Robertson. It was the first time the producers presented a play, first time the director directed a Broadway play, first Broadway play for Sidney Poitier; but most importantly, first play she published and first Negro play by a woman on a Broadway stage.

“Critical Praise” is what the play received that day. “New York Critics Laud ‘A Raisin in the Sun” is an article written a few days after it opened. There it mentions all the positive reviews from other newspapers. It mentions how it “made history,” that it was a “theatrical magic,” and a “superior play.” This was the first time the character of Walter Lee appeared onstage, that is why it is impossible to criticize or compare Poitier’s performance. He and the rest of the cast received nothing but praises and honorable mentions.

Revivals around the country have had mixed reviews. They all agree that the play still appeal to a great audience because of its relevant themes. This is probably because as it says in a New York Times article, that still possesses “identifying issues that would continue to shape African American life…” (Bentley). However, play critics do not go to a revival to see how the audience receives the play.

After reading several articles, I found that critics go to see how Walter is interpreted and by whom.  For example, the first words in a New York Times article by Ben Bentley are “Sean Combs.” This clearly states that the whole article is going to be mostly about this celebrity. Bentley argues that the 2004 revival was a “dreary affair” because apparently Combs performance left space for Walter to grow and he did not fit into the Walter that Sidney Poitier portrayed. He says that since Combs has had a sustained triumph, it is too difficult to see him as a Walter. Bentley says that Combs is nothing but a “handsome self-assured face” and that the only right choice he made was to put his hands on his face. However, he does say that he liked the rest of the cast because in their faces one was able to see what was happening without need for words.

I think that Bentley is somehow exaggerating and went to the theater with biases towards Combs.Since I did not saw Poitier or Combs on Broadway, I decided to watch both movie versions because of Bentley’s comments. I found how great actor is Sidney Poitier, but I did not saw a bad interpretation of Walter by Sean Combs. In fact, I think that Combs was a good representation of a contemporary Walter.

Just as the previous article’s first words were Sean Combs, in another one is “Sidney Poitier”. This time was again published in The New York Times but it was a review about a Chicago’s revival in 2006. Anita Gates wrote it and there she says that the message of the play still was successfully achieved despite the lack of good direction of Secret Scott. She believes that the main character of this play is Walter because “he represented a changing consciousness among black Americans as civil rights movement lay around the corner” (Gates). However, her entire article mostly talks about the plot instead of describing the performance or criticizing how “Walter” did. Another review about other ‘Raisin in the Sun production falling short was one by Rich Frank titled “Theater: ‘Raisin in Sun,’ Anniversary in Chicago.” This one also talks about how the play “changed America Theater forever.”

The revival which the previous review analyzes was one in 1983 at the Goodman Theater. Rich says that even though it was not great, it did not “obscure the play’s strengths.” Here again it is mentioned what Walter means. Rich says that regardless of the race, Walter is another victim of the “materialistic American dream.” This is the first article that actually talks about race. He sees the play as Hansberry once described it, “a play about honest-to-God, believable, many-sided people who happened to be Negros” (Robertson). 

Rich mentions how the staging resembled the original production, but that the bad thing was the acting. There is a part in the article where he talks about the “strangulated imitations” compared to the original performers, but he focuses more on Walter interpreted by Bret Jennings. Rich says that thanks to Jennings’ acting, it made A Raisin in the Sun a “simplified melodrama.” I did not saw this performance, but I think it is unfair just to blame him for this. Sidney Poitier set the bar very high, but it is incorrect to come to a play with such high expectations. This revival is another interpretation of the play, it is Jennings own interpretation of Walter. Not everyone sees the play the same way.

Another play review where I did find that a revival was fairly criticized was one by Klein Alvin titled “Theater: A ‘Raisin in the Sun’ That Still Rousing.” This play review talks about the 1995 production at the George Street Playhouse in New York. He uses words like: a glowing, visionary, hope, breathtaking, timeless, universal, and humorous. He believes that the message that Hansberry wanted to send to society was “that family love is the most powerful force on earth” and that this production was able to achieve and send that message as well. It must be his favorite play too and must have seen it numerous times because he mentions that even though it is probably the 15th time seeing it, he still finds that this one gives audience a “fresh” force of hope. I think that this critic did not came in to the theatre hoping to see Poitier, Dee, or McNeil. Instead, he does give a good review of the cast performance. I do not say this because he liked it, but because he never seems to compare the first production with this new one.

The first time that I read A Raisin in the Sun for a class, race was never something we focused on. For us was just a play about people who happened to be black. This image prevails in my mind because as Hispanic I feel at some point identified with the Younger family too. I think that this is what happens to a play about the American dreams; it becomes timeless and colorblind. And because nothing ever stays the same and everything changes, it is impossible to clone Sidney Poitier and put him in every revival of A RaisinIn The Sun. That is why it is unfair to do what critics have been doing. They have been looking for Poitier everywhere they see a character named Walter Lee Younger. Of course this character is important, but it is not the only one. It was unfair to prejudge Combs performance and still unfair to use a magnifying glass in every Walter. The only thing that should matter is that the play is still relevant and that if it did or did not achieved its goal, which is to reach a multicultural audience and present a beautiful story about fighting for ones ideals and family unification.

*This was an essay for my African American Theatre Drama Class – Dec 2010

Klein Alvin.  “A ‘Raisin in the Sun’ That’s Still Rousing. ” New York Times (1923-Current file)
22  Jan. 1995,ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007), ProQuest. Web.  09Nov. 2010.
Gates Anita.  “A ‘Raisin’ With Appeal, if Not Crystal Clarity. ”  New York Times (1923-Current
file)  5  Mar. 2006,ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 –
2007), ProQuest.Web.  09Nov. 2010.

BrantleyBen.  “A Breakthrough 50’s Drama Revived in a Suspenseful Mood :[Review]. ”  New
York Times  27  Apr. 2004, Late Edition (East Coast): New York Times, ProQuest.
Web.  09Nov. 2010.

Rich Frank. “Theater: ‘Raisin in Sun,’ Anniversary in Chicago. ” New York Times (1923-
Current file)  5  Oct. 1983,ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-
2007), ProQuest.Web.  09Nov. 2010.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.  “At 50, Hansberry’s ‘Raisin’ Has Ripened With a New Relevance. ” The
Washington Post  15  Mar. 2009,Washington Post, ProQuest. Web.  09 Nov. 2010.

“New York Critics Laud ‘ARaisinInTheSun.”Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963)
12 Mar. 1959,ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987), ProQuest.
Web.  09Nov. 2010.

Robertson Nan.  (1959, March 8). DRAMATIST AGAINST ODDS. New York Times
(1923-Current file),X3.  Retrieved November 09, 2010, from ProQuest Historical
Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007). (Document ID: 89157714).

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