Playwright Lorraine Hansberry was the first person to be called "Young, Gifted and Black"
“He finally came into his manhood today, didn’t he? Kind of like a rainbow after the rain… “
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which premiered on Broadway in 1959, is the welcome start to a season of American plays at London’s Young Vic. As Spike Lee has said, and I can put it no better “A Raisin in the Sun was a revelation to me. It’s still fresh. It is still relevant. Lorraine Hansberry was a visionary”
The play is redolent of those by playwrights who wrote expertly about families: Eugene O’Neill, Sean O’Casey and Arthur Miller. While her concerns were marked by her race and gender, Hansberry expressed the dreams of all families world-wide.
The real journey of the play is made by the mother Lena Younger (Novella Nelson) as she learns to hold back on her wisdom and to let her son Walter Lee Younger (Lennie James) come of age in the sense of his being able to make the right decision for his family. In Walter Lee’s sister, Beneatha Younger (Kananu Kirimi) we have the makings of a young woman who is going to thrive in the Sixties political climate and to question the position of both women and African Americans in society.
David Lan’s atmospheric production is bounded by one room in the apartment block in Chicago. The beginning of the play sees the family lining up to use the communal bathroom and we get a sense of the tension created by cramped quarters and the enforced intimacy with the neighbours. The set has a high brick wall, with a window above occasionally showing black and white footage of Walter Lee and his wife Ruth (Cecilia Noble) in a touch which puts us firmly in the 1950s. Tim Mitchell’s lighting hits the wall as if sunlight through railings.
Novella Nelson is a strong presence as the matriarch. Kananu Kirimi is delightfully animated as the young college student Beneatha and Cecilia Noble conveys all the weariness of Walter Lee’s pregnant wife. While Lennie James does well with the initially hapless Walter Lee, there are times when A Raisin in the Sun seems like an Irish play where only the women are the powerful characters. William Chubb is chilling as Karl Lindner, the White Residents’ Association representative who tries to buy out the Youngers.
Although this play is a period piece, the dreams it expresses endure and give it a resonance for today. I’m told that the term “Young, Gifted and Black ” was first applied to Lorraine Hansberry. I can see why.
A Raisin in the Sun
Written by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by David Lan
Daniel Anthony/Adrian Fergus Fuller/Dwayne Thomas
Director: David Lan
Designer: Francis O’Connor
Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell
Sound Designer: Crispin Covell
Running Time: Three hours with an interval
Closed at the Young Vic on 30th June 2001
The Young Vic
London SE1 8LZ
Rail/Tube: Waterloo or Southwark
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Young Vic on 5th June 2001