A Raisin in the Sun ★★★★1/2

Written by Lorraine Hansberry. Sydney Theatre Company. 27 August – 15 October 2022.

As the lights came up at the end of Sydney Theatre Company’s production of A Raisin in the Sun I was angry. My reaction to the Younger family was at odds with the play’s intentions. Pack of proud fools! I was mad at them. I was mad at the world around them. I was mad at a lot of things. But I wasn’t mad at this production – this production is heaven-sent!

Can we take a quick digression? How on earth can it be true that this is the mainstage Australian premiere of a play that has been an instant classic since it was first staged in 1959? Even if you thought US race relations in the 50s wouldn’t translate to Australia (and you would be very wrong about that), the sheer beauty and strength of the text should be enough to get it onto the stage. Lorraine Hansberry is the actual definition of “young, gifted and black” and this play is a modern masterpiece.

The quartet of the core Younger family members are dynamic together. A collision of pride and aspiration with the pain of life. The impending arrival of a life insurance check for $10,000 gives them a way out of their rut, but it’s not enough for everyone to get what they want. Matriarch Lena (Gayle Samuels), the recipient, has to juggle the wants and needs of her children, and their children. Her son, Walter (Bert Labonté), wants to quit his job as a chauffeur and go into business with his friends – to reclaim his manhood and stop being someone’s servant. Her daughter Beneatha (Angela Mahlatjie) is studying medicine, the first in the family to go to college, and the money will pay for her education. Walter’s wife, Ruth (Zahra Newman), just wants to get the hell out of this place, the weight of her depression is killing her. 

These are four, fantastic performances. Newman’s Ruth is simultaneously an open wound in a tightly clenched fist. Labonté’s Walter, a proud man brought low, desperate for respect. Mahlatjie’s Beneatha is both youthfully ignorant (perhaps even entitled) and a deep thinker. Samuel’s Lena is a rock refusing to crack under the intense weight of life. They are electric.

Director Wesley Enoch plays things pretty straight, which is fitting for the text and its premiere status. The text is the star here and it is delivered without distractions. Hansberry’s characters are instantly vivid, layered and honest; they need no more embellishments. We get to live in the Younger family’s small apartment, stare out the grubby window into the air shaft, watch it transform through the day as the family live their lives. Enoch has also chosen to retain the character of Mrs Johnson, the Younger’s nosey neighbour (often cut for time – the play is almost three hours long) and she is an injection of humour, drama and fresh energy within the claustrophobic surroundings.

So why was I angry? I wanted to slap Walter for his stupidity again and again. It’s here this 1950s play resonates with the 2020s. A weak, broken man is given more and more chances to ruin things. Had I been on that stage I would have thrown Walter out of the house, not given him more authority. A stupid patriachal family struture with an idiotically vain man in a position of power – this is the downfall of the civilisation we live in, writ large on the stage as a story of hope and dignity. I struggle to sympathise with him and I felt his constant betrayals of Ruth too keenly. The narrative of him “finding his pride” left me hollow.

The play’s ending, as ever, is a bittersweet blend of hope in the face of adversity. Have the Younger’s made a wise decision? Probably not. Have they made a bold decision? Definitely. Maybe the point is that they are finally in a position to make any decision at all. They have agency. Their destiny is in their own hands now, and it will be hard sailing ahead.

Go see A Raisin in the Sun. It’s as simple as that. This is a worthy classic, produced and performed beautifully. To miss it would be folly.






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