Alisha Bailey & Ashley Zhangazha

Alisha Bailey as Ruth, the mother, and Ashley Zhangazha as the dad. Pictures:  Johan Persson
A Raisin in the Sun

Coventry Belgrade B2

*****

IT'S no surprise that the inspiration for Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) to become a dramatist should have been her encounter with the plays of Sean O'Casey.

A Raisin in the Sun, is given a marvellously vivid, edge-of-seat staging by at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre B2 venue in a collaboration with Sheffield Theatres and the Eclipse Theatre Company.

The work, rarely seen in this country, is a typical example of the Belgrade's 'Hidden Histories' season. It focuses on plays that are unduly neglected or rarely seen, and accords with the spirit Hamin Glen has brought to the theatre since he first took it over, when rare Brecht and little-known Chekhov, not to mention plays from the Marlowe and Jonson era, typified the sort fo thing he made the Belgrade's own.

Later this season he will resurrect Wipers, by Ishy Din, a story of the Indian soldiery who took part in the later Ypres campaigns and whose impressive memorial can be found a few miles south of the city.

Not only is A Raisin in the Sun rightly classed as 'a landmark in the American canon' from an era that coincided, and succeeded, and was infused with, the great plays of Albee-Tennesse Williams-Arthur Miller.

It was the first play by a black woman writer to be seen on Broadwaymother and daughter (in 1959), one which picked up the New York Drama Critics' Circle best play award for that year, and one that had the power to alter views and question assumptions, in its own way criticising black people for self-pity and urging them to stand on their own two feet if they wanted equality to be a fact and not just a dream.

Angela Wynter  as grandmother Lena with Alisha Bailey as mother Ruth

'What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up Like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore . . . ' These lines (from 'Harlem') by poet Langston Hughes give both the title and the impetus to Hansberry's play.

Focusing on a close family in a plain but not shabby tenement apartment in southern Chicago, it gives us their hopes and their disappointments, shows them embattled and reconciling, and speaking a lot of plain truths.

One of the treats - there are many - is when grandma (Lena Younger, played as a commanding materfamilias by Angela Wynter) observes 'The only people in the world more snobbish than rich white people are rich coloured people.' This play shoots from the hip. Blacks are proud to be black, but that doesn't stop them forever complaining about what they don't have and being subject - as well as to effective segregation - to some scathing criticism themselves.

What brings this intimate, closely argued play its O'Casey feel is especially the fact that in it - like in Juno and the Paycock - a central character comes into a substantial amount of insurance money that turns out to be a chimaera (in this case, the father rushes off and invests it in a scam deal with a mate that leads to all the money being lost).

Walter Kee Younger, the Dad (Ashley Zhangazha), a chauffeur but a natural loser, is to all intents the weakest figure on this household. Zhanghazha plays him skilfully - impetuous, bossy, smugly proud, prone to mild explosions, and in essence utterly ineffectual. His young ten or eleven year old son, Travis, has a great deal more nous than his father has, and Solomon Gordon gave a beautifully polished performance as this lad possessed of a great deal of common sense, who knows that the ones to listen to are the women.

It's strange, but in many ways this doesn't feel like a play about race at all. Hansberry has proved so effective in showing us a normal family, bickering and lecturing and reconciling, that the whole outfit, while cash-strapped, feels as white as white can be.

Yet that's not to diminish it: the fact that the characters are all black enables us to see that a huge amount of wisdom and common sense resides with a black family, if anything all the more when living in straitened circumstances. They make do with what they have. They manage adversity. They cope. And they show a great deal more courage, one might surmise, than those ultra-rich people on the other side of the city. More O'Casey.

Amid a wealth of both shrewd and memorable pieces of acting, it was Alisha Bailey (Ruth, the Mother) who won me from the start. She has a wonderful expressiveness - to her face, to her moves, to even the mildest utterance - which picks her out as an actress of charm as well as talent.

A lot of the opening sequence involves characters queuing to get to the communal bathroom (shared with neighbours). Just managing her family in and out of the side passage is part of her task. She cooks, and irons a lot. This is a demanding life, and somehow with slightly shrunken shoulders she showed us this, scene by scene. I thought this a delicious performance, and arguably, within a cast rich in talent, the best and the most affecting.

But enter the other women. There's a demanding sister (Beneatha, Susan Wokoma) who gives us some of the funniest lines, partly because with a very different body language she is such a natural comic. She's independent, like a kind of suffragette; she tends to push the others around a bit, but also acquiesces and concedes where peace demands it.

She collects various men (slightly gung-ho George Murchison and Joseph Asagai, a Yoruba from Nigeria, affable and perhaps a bit wet (Arou Julius plays both the suitors with nice contrast); she's a handful, though not an impossible one, and Bolshy ('God is just one idea I don't accept. I don't like God taking credit for everything man achieves'). Does she really feel that strongly? Or is she simply winding up her god-respecting family?

One person she can't wind up is her Mom. Angela Wynter's Grandmother (Lena) gave us a splendid take on the real head of the family, who doesn't suffer fools gladly (including her own son), has a nice and believable relationship (as they all do) with Travis, the patently affectionate, amenable grandson, keeps her own offspring under a measure of control, and finds that the best way to deal with some of the obnoxious segregation found in Chicago, from post-war up to the Sixties, is to let it be and live your own life. If subservient jobs are the best you can aspire to, stick with them and perform them well.

There's fun along the way, not least a cheerful, hearty dance sequence launching part 2, and they pick on some amusing butts, like College boys: 'They have to talk about something nobody ain't heard of'.

Dawn Walton's direction works, arguably, because she tends to lay off and allow the words to speak for themselves without undue intrusion or irrelevant invention.

Amanda Stoodley's set does the same: plain, dull furniture and typical fifties wallpaper, but actually in no way suggesting abject poverty (a Soviet family would give their right arm for that flat): you feel that with Travis's generation this family could pull itself up by the bootstraps. And with an experienced, totally committed cast like this, the script does speak for itself.

We lost to the cutting shears Mrs Johnson, the nosy neighbour who adds a comic touch and a degree of common sense. Instead, nicest extra role was Mike Burnside as the slightly unctuous yet in essence pretty unsavoury figure who seeks to buy the family out of moving to a white neighbourhood. Gross. No wonder everyone shows him the door. To 26-03-16

Roderic Dunnett

24-03-16 

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