Pit & Balcony Turns a Poignant Corner With Their Production of \'A Raisin in the Sun\'

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre,   From Issue 784   By: Robert E Martin

30th January, 2014     0

A Raisin in the Sun is an exceptionally executed and deftly written play by Lorraine Hansberry that debuted on Broadway in 1959 and has carried an enduring impact upon both American theatre and the social fabric of our country since it first premiered.

Indeed, with a cast in which all but one minor character is African-American, A Raisin in the Sun was considered to be a risky investment and it took over a year for producer Philip Rose to raise enough money to launch the play in 1959. Though it did achieve popular and critical acclaim, many reviewers argued about whether the play was ‘universal’ or ‘particular’ to African-American experiences.

But one thing is for certain: it served as a harbinger for social change that few works of art have achieved.

The title comes from the poem ‘Harlem” (also known as ‘A Dream Deferred’ and the story line is based upon a black family’s experiences in the Washington Park Subdivision of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.

Amazingly, the experiences in this play echo a lawsuit (Hansberry v. Lee (1940) to which the Hansberry family was a party when in court because a previous class action about racially motivated restricted covenants was similar. This case was held prior to the passage of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing and created the Office of Fair Housing & Equal Opportunity.

And now Pit & Balcony Theatre and The Michigan Banner are presenting a local production of A Raisin in the Sun that is poised to usher its thoughtful and eloquent lessons of hope and change for an entirely new generation of audience, with performances running from January 31 – February 2nd and February 7-9th.

The plot involved Walter & Ruth Younger and their son Travis, along with Walter’s mother Leina and sister Beneatha, who live in poverty in a dilapidated two-bedroom apartment. Walter is barely making a living as a limousine driver, and though Ruth is content with their lot in life, Walter is not and desperately wishes to become wealthy, so he plans to invest in a liquor store with Willy, a street-smart acquaintance of Walter’s whom the audience never meets.

Mama is waiting for an insurance check for ten thousand dollars, but Walter has a sense of entitlement to the money, even though Mama has religious objections to alcohol and it is her call on how the money is to be spent.

Eventually, Mama puts some of the money down on a new house, choosing an all-white neighborhood over a black one for the practical reason that it happens to be much cheaper; but later she relents and gives the rest of the money to Walter to invest with the provision he reserve $3,000 for Benetha’s education.  From this interwoven scenario, a slew of powerful dynamics are beautifully rendered through this meticulously crafted script.

According to Pit & Balcony Board President Martha Humphreys, she is particularly proud to be involved with Pit & Balcony as it is poised to the turn the corner on a new era of expanding the involvement with Community Theater in the area.

“This is something we’ve never done before,” she reflects.  “This is the first time that we’ve done a show of this nature and are doing it in conjunction with Black History month. The script is so strong and this is one of my favorite plays. But most important, we are trying to reach out to black audiences because I feel we’ve been missing a whole pool of patrons and talent. I believe we are here for the entire community and it is our mission to entertain and allow talent within our area to grow, so I am very excited about this because it’s a big move on our part.”

For director Linda Bush Rebney there are many pivotal qualities involved with A Raisin in the Sun that distinguish it and make it stand out in the lexicon of American Theater. “This play presents the audience with characters who are universal,” reflects Rebney. “People who share the American Dream of making a better life for their children. We see the obstacles of class and generational conflicts, along with an array of issues from the value systems of the black family, relationships of men and women, and feminism before the word existed.”

As the director, are there any themes or sub-texts involved with Raisin that Rebney is trying to emphasize and bring out within the text of the play? “Lorraine Hansberry was a genius of language. I find it hard to separate one theme from another because they are so brilliantly blended together.”

As for the audition process, Pit & Balcony held open auditions and a total of 27 people auditioned. “The nine actors I am working with bring an absolute determination to master every nuance of dialogue and action,” states Rebney. “This determination is seen in their willingness to rehearse weekends and holidays. We were even at the theatre on New Year’s Day. Indeed, many lines were already memorized by the cast a week before the deadline to be off script. We are all part of a supportive team, working through the conflicts of holidays, work, and class schedules.”

Additionally, Linda points out an interesting fact about this upcoming P&B production of A Raisin in the Sun.Sandra Robinson plays the role of Lena Younger, the grandmother. Thirty-five years ago, I directed A Raisin in the Sun at Saginaw High School and Sandra played the role of the mother, Ruth, as a sophomore, which goes to underscore the enduring impact of this production.”

When asked what she feels is the most challenging component involved with bringing this production of Raisin in the Sun to the P&B stage, Linda notes, “Most productions rehearse for eight weeks. But with Christmas and New Year’s falling into our eight week slot, we’ve worked seven days a week to make up for lost time over the holidays.”

In terms of her own background as Director of A Raisin in the Sun, Linda Rebney got her first taste of acting in the 4th Grade. “By the 8th grade I was already directing, “she explains. “When I learned that I could teach this subject in high school, my career path was set. During 32 years with the Saginaw Public Schools, I directed more than 40 shows at Saginaw High and Arthur Hill. I joined Pit & Balcony as an actor the year I retired from teaching and have appeared in five plays. A Raisin in the Sun is my fourth play as a director.”

Additionally, all proceeds from concession sales during the run of this production will be donated to the Saginaw Soup Kitchen. “Plus the show is being sponsored by The Michigan Banner and we are pleased to have forged this new relationship. The Banner publisher, Jerome Buckley, has been very generous, even running full page ads for the upcoming play,” notes Humphreys.

“We are also going to have kids from St. Vincent’s, 1st Ward Community Center and Big Brothers/Big Sisters as guests for our brush-up of Raisin. Area high schools have contacted about attending, but I’m not sure yet about who has committed,” explains Martha.

A Raisin in the Sun is being taught in the high schools now, so we thought it would be cool to reach out to them and bring English classes in for brush-up night. There’s no fee and the theatre is sponsoring it. How fabulous is this? Having area teens see first hand what they’re reading and learning from a play in class and experiencing it on stage at the same time. Bring on the younger audiences!”

“Raisin is such a relevant play about exposure to the prevailing overt prejudices of the 1950s,” she continues, “but its impact was a turning point in American Theatre. All the idealism about race boils down to the overriding message that dreams are crucial to success.”

“The title of this play is from a poem written by 1920s Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes, himself a black author. The Poem was written in 1951 and is called Harlem: A Dream Deferred. It has three lines in it: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up…like a raisin in the sun?”

“Ultimately, that’s the theme of the play. Does one defer the dream or let it go and never capture it again?”

Pit & Balcony’s production of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ will run form January 31 – February 2nd and February 7-9th. For tickets call 989-754-6587 or visit PitAndBalconyTheatre.com. Pit & Balcony is located at 805 N. Hamilton St., Saginaw.


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