Please Note: The following review dates from February 2005 and this production's run at the Lyric, Hammersmith.
What a difference four years makes! Or does it?
When I reviewed David Lan’s riveting production of the landmark 1959 black play A Raisin in the Sun when it first appeared at the Young Vic in 2001, I began my review here by asking, “When was the last time we saw a play specifically addressing the contemporary black experience at the National Theatre, I wonder?”
Now that Lan’s production has returned to London (prior to a national tour), that question can currently be answered by Fix Up, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s second play that's in the Cottesloe repertoire, and follows the appearance there also of Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads as well as Kwei-Armah’s Elmina's Kitchen, now itself on a national tour.
So in a few short years, there has been a seismic cultural shift in the colour, on stage and off, of the National Theatre. But though these are indeed hopeful signs, you still wouldn’t necessarily guess that we live in a vibrantly multiracial society if you looked at what’s playing in the West End most of the time, and the make-up of the audience attending it.
There's still a huge gulf between the world at large and the theatre that’s supposed to reflect it; and there remains an urgent need for bridges to be built that might help to widen our theatregoing audience. A Raisin in the Sun seems to me the perfect place to begin that.
When rap star P Diddy brought the same play back to Broadway last year, it’s true that the bigger achievement was off stage than on: with the audience that his presence in it was able to bring to the theatre. It was extraordinary to watch it on the “Great White Way” - as Broadway is sometimes called, for reasons other than the colour of the audience but more often than not might equally be so named for precisely that reason - and be surrounded by a predominantly black audience.
British theatregoers of all races, however, are even luckier to be able to see this poignant, poetic drama of family life in late 1950s Chicago without the distraction of a contemporary celebrity endorsement but with a really solid, powerfully moving performance by a real actor instead. Lennie James, returning to the role he played four years ago, is once again extraordinary as an ordinary man dreaming of making a different life for himself and his family.
Like a black Death of a Salesman, this play shares with Arthur Miller’s modern classic a powerful sense of society’s infinite betrayals of people’s aspirations and how easily they are derailed. But it also likewise has a very human understanding of the contribution individuals make to their own failures.
There are also comparably strong roles for the women who are trying to support the man: Noma Dumezweni and Novella Nelson are both heartbreakingly powerful as James' wife and mother. They, and the play, are not to be missed.
- Mark Shenton
NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from July 2001 and this production's original run at the Young Vic. Check back shortly for updates on the new run. For further casting information, see current performance listings.
When was the last time we saw a play specifically addressing the contemporary black experience at the National Theatre, I wonder?
A recent two-week run of a stage version of the Asian epic, The Ramayana, co-produced with Birmingham Rep, doesn't really count; though there are plans, apparently, to stage August Wilson's Jitney on the South Bank soon, they seem too busy with revivals to tackle anything that might resonate beyond the concerns of the mailing list.
So it’s left to the increasingly resourceful and challenging Young Vic, under the artistic directorship of David Lan, to revive one of the landmark works of 20th-century black drama, which - for all its power and passion - is all too rarely seen. (The last London revival was a decade and a half ago, at North London's Tricycle).
But as Lan (who also directs) proves, this inspirational drama about an aspirational black family, three generations of which are living in a shared house in Chicago's Southside, has both a universal appeal and a riveting, often overwhelming, dramatic force.
It's the care, compassion and craft with which its young author, Lorraine Hansberry, painted this searing portrait of a family's struggle – from grabbing a slot in the shared bathroom to grabbing at larger dreams - that defines this rich and characterful play. Even if it occasionally feels dated and a bit schematic, its humanity shines through, especially here in the achingly true performances of the terrific ensemble cast.
Imported from New York, Novella Nelson is tremendous as the formidable matriarch, Lena Younger, who is expecting a $10,000 insurance cheque from her husband's death when the play begins. Everyone is pinning their own dreams on it: her son, Walter Lee (the excellent Lennie James), wants to go into business running a liquor store with a couple of friends; her daughter, Beneatha (Kananu Kirimi), wants to go to medical school. Meanwhile, Lena herself desires to move her family to a new home - and finds and buys one. The snag is that it's in an all-white neighbourhood, and the representative of the resident's welcoming committee, Karl Lindner (William Chubb), points out that the only welcome he has to offer is a financial incentive to stop them moving there.
Originally produced on Broadway in 1959, this was Hansberry's first play and she made history as the first black female playwright to be seen there; and when it won the New York Critics Circle Award, she became the first black playwright, the fifth woman and the youngest ever American to win it. Her career was, however, cruelly cut short when she died, aged just 34, on the day that her second staged play closed.
But even if her legacy was merely A Raisin in the Sun, it's a thrilling one; and it's wonderful to have the play back in London.
- Mark Shenton