Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the White House has been predicted to usher in everything from a post-racial era to a renewed faith in America abroad to a rise in gun sales (yes, indeed). And this was before he’d even been sworn in. But one thing I can say for sure, watching A Raisin in the Sun on opening night at the Guthrie Theater, his triumph has lit a fire under the performance of this crackling, empowering production of a play that once marked another first in African-American history.
The play, which debuted 50 years ago on Broadway, was the first major production to feature an all-black principal cast, a black director, and a black playwright (Lorraine Hansberry, whose larger-than-life portrait hangs alongside Tennessee Williams and the rest outside the Guthrie). Its climax, centering on a black family’s impending move to a white neighborhood, was based on the real-life experience of the playwright’s family, which ended in a Supreme Court decision–the situation was still raw in the country’s day-to-day life, much less its imagination.
That the story has been given a new edge is the particular power of this anniversary production, a cooperative effort between St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre, the Arizona Theatre Company, and the Cleveland Playhouse. It is an edge sharpened less with bitterness over dreams deferred than the pride of dreams realized. And the cast, particularly David Alan Anderson (the only Penumbra company member in the show) as Walter Lee Younger and Franchelle Stewart Dorn as his mother, Lena, enliven the historical context with what is undoubtedly a personal feeling of vindication. That they are practically bursting with pride is almost physically evident, even though they are set against each other for much of the play. The effect is of a victory lap–they are not praying for the promised land, they have been there, and this is their story.
The actors’ effectiveness is also a triumph of the guiding philosophy behind Penumbra, what the theater’s director and the director of this production, Lou Bellamy, has described as plays by, for, and about black people. As a white person, I don’t expect to experience these plays the same way an African-American might. But I do feel when it’s working. To do what he does, Bellamy once told me, you have to love black people. You understand exactly what he means–and how powerful that can be–when you see this production.