Review: This Time, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ Really Does Explode

Leaving his recent “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” aside, Robert O’Hara doesn’t typically direct revivals; nor, leaving Shakespeare aside, does the Public Theater typically produce them. Yet on Tuesday the Public opened O’Hara’s take on Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”: not merely a revival but a further “exploration” of an earlier production of a 1959 classic that is arguably as well known today as it was epochal when it debuted.

How, then, to make it new? Apparently, on the evidence of this staging, by furiously underlining its subtleties and downplaying its conventional strengths, a reversal of standard procedure that produces a sometimes stunning, sometimes stunted result.

It’s not as if the play needed help to feel relevant; like all great works it has proved itself incessantly timely. In telling the story of the Youngers, a Black family aiming to move from a “rat trap” tenement on Chicago’s South Side to a house in a working-class white neighborhood, it both reports on and anticipates the racist backlash to upward mobility that has been a blight on American life since Reconstruction. And in dramatizing the effects of that backlash on Walter Lee, the feckless dreamer of the family, it offers a piercing psychological portrait of Black manhood in distress.

As was customary in her time, Hansberry prioritizes the real estate plot, wrapping Walter Lee’s personal drama (and that of his mother, wife, sister and son) in its ultimately hopeful arms. Beginning with the indignities of “ghetto-itus” — there are just two bedrooms for the three generations and a bathroom shared with neighbors down the hall — the play ends with them all moving out. Even the feeble houseplant, symbolically undernourished in the light-deprived apartment, is promised a new life.

O’Hara signals from the start (and reiterates throughout) that he will flip the focus, at the same time broadening and darkening it. His production begins not, as written, with Ruth Younger (Mandi Masden) making breakfast, but with Walter Lee (Francois Battiste) carrying their sleeping son, Travis, from the dim recesses of the apartment to his bed on the living room sofa. It’s a haunting image that suggests the way the father’s hopes, and perhaps his failures, may be borne into the future — a future O’Hara and the scenic designer, Clint Ramos, literalize in a devastating coup de théâtre at the end.

In between, no matter how judiciously Hansberry has distributed the play’s attention among the main characters — including the matriarch, Lena (Tonya Pinkins), and her daughter, Beneatha (Paige Gilbert) — O’Hara concentrates his prodigious theatrical imagination on Walter Lee.

Battiste, among the most compelling stage actors today, has no difficulty filling the additional space created by that interpretation, making the character more alarming than usual but no less believable. Even when O’Hara has him step completely out of the frame of the play, turning what is already a horrifying speech (“O, yassuh boss! Yassssuh, Great white Father!”) into a brutal moment of minstrelsy, Battiste manages not to rip the skin of the role.

But some of O’Hara’s other attempts to muscle in on Hansberry’s naturalism are less successful. Reaching not just forward but also backward along the family’s male line, he transfers some of the dialogue normally assigned to Lena to the ghost of her husband, who wanders atmospherically in and out of the action, looking unmoored. (The spectral lighting is by Alex Jainchill.) Also unmoored: a passage of postcoital pillow talk for Walter Lee and Ruth, created by turning dialogue that’s usually spoken live into a recorded voice-over. We hear the moans of their lovemaking too.

Rather than creating the impression of buried fondness in their marriage, as it evidently means to do, the interpolation pushes the affection offstage. That’s a problem throughout. O’Hara directs most of the family scenes as overlapping free-for-alls, creating a generalized impression of dysfunction and very little of attachment. (Most of the funny and trenchant detail is lost in the noise.) At times I had the feeling that O’Hara, impatient with Hansberry’s occasionally laborious dramaturgy, had spun all the dials to the extreme right: volume, contrast, hue.

Yet that was not the case in the earlier version of this revival seen at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 2019. Led more equally by Battiste’s Walter Lee and S. Epatha Merkerson’s Lena, that “Raisin” was just as daring but less cartoonish. And though the current cast is very good generally, it’s noticeable that the comic material is handled most deftly, with standout performances from the piquant Gilbert and, as a nosy neighbor, Perri Gaffney.

Rather, the problem seems to be that O’Hara’s continued exploration has escaped Hansberry’s orbit, leaving some of the graver characters stranded in the thin air between her style and his. As Lena, Pinkins, ordinarily capable of astonishing depth and power, is largely hampered by too much directorial business, including the sudden onset of a ferocious palsy no one onstage seems to notice. And where the script famously has her slap her daughter for blasphemy, O’Hara has her go much further, leaving Beneatha flat on the floor.

Despite his similar approach to the play overall, it never stays down for long. It can’t; it has too much internal energy and direction for any single misstep, including Hansberry’s, to throw the whole thing off track. Beneatha’s choice between two suitors — a preppy conformist (Mister Fitzgerald) and a Nigerian idealist (John Clay III) — is fully engaging no matter how creaky the setup is. And though the scene in which a representative of the Youngers’s new neighborhood (Jesse Pennington) comes to “welcome” them with veiled threats is very nearly twirling-mustache melodrama, it’s nevertheless one of the highlights of American theater.

In that sense, O’Hara — who aside from his brilliant direction of contemporary works like “Slave Play” and “BLKS” is a mordant comic playwright himself — is right to reimagine the genre expectations of “Raisin.” It’s what we do with all classics, not because they require it but because they can handle it. And if his pessimism about American racism is somewhat at odds with Hansberry’s cautious optimism, well, he’s had 60 more years of history to support his point. That the play is so prescient does not mean that its story is over. It means that, sadly, it never is.

A Raisin in the Sun
Through Nov. 20 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 3 hours.

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