When “A Raisin in the Sun” received an instant standing ovation on opening night, a sense of solidarity reverberated through the audience. A few tears sprinkled the ground, many jaws were agape and most found themselves at a loss for words. An unspoken understanding that something very, very special happened pervaded the space.
After the production, a friend of mine tugged on my arm and said, “Everything Harry Elam touches is gold.” This couldn’t be more accurate. Elam, who holds such prestigious titles as Vice President for the Arts, Senior Vice Provost for Education and the Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (the list goes on, literally), directs the Department of Theater and Performance Studies and BLACKstage’s collaborative production of “A Raisin in the Sun” with assistance from Karina Gutierrez and Sean Howard. It is one of the best productions I’ve seen on Stanford’s campus. Elam masterfully highlights the reflective and socially critical nature of Lorraine Hansberry’s canonical play by expertly crafting emotional beats, building complex relationships, crystalizing the play’s theatrical realism and emphasizing its irrefutable relevance today. It is a gilded dream, fulfilled.
Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” captures a period of metamorphic transition for the Youngers, a black working class family living in the South Side of Chicago in 1959. The Youngers’ lives become turbulent when the matriarch, Lena Younger (Aleta Hayes), receives a $10,000 insurance check that suddenly creates space for their previously repudiated dreams to become palatable. As each relative struggles to define and realize their own unique goals and purposes, animosity grows between family members whose conflicting dreams and opinions clash. Most of this internal conflict is exacerbated by forces and events pressurizing the apartment’s walls from the outside. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, the white community ardently fights against integration and hinders the Youngers. Elam’s production places this historicized repression in dialogue with contemporary repression, and speaks to the resilience and adaptability of disenfranchised voices in a racialized America.
No one steals this show because everyone is too darn good. Immense hard work and love is poured into every aspect of this production, and it is clear every actor holds up their end of the bargain. They collectively navigate through drastic emotional beats, transitioning between comedy and turmoil flawlessly. Even moments that may not be interpreted as humorous or serious in the text are presented as such through the actors’ gut-wrenchingly honest portrayals and reactions. Their decisions to balance repression with hope elegantly help this text soar.
Each actor thoughtfully brings a wholeness to their characters as well. The Youngers especially present a picture of independent, but not isolated, individuals in a family unit. These actors highlight the multidimensional nature of each character by craftily conveying the subtext and historical positioning of each interaction, while ensuring the punchiest lines stand out.
Irie Evans, who plays a well-meaning yet deeply conflicted Walter Younger, literally spans the entire range of the stage, both emotionally and physically. He triumphantly reins atop the dining room table, crumbles to the ground and dabbles in almost every possible physical and emotional dynamic in between. Walter’s decisive, spontaneous and regretful nature is well-examined through Evans’ portrayal.
Evans’ spontaneity is contrasted yet balanced by Gianna Clark’s Ruth Younger. Clark’s Ruth is the true embodiment of excellence. Clark presents an honest and specific characterization of Ruth as she keenly observes and interacts with her home. The darting of her eyes, the delicate placement of her hands, the warmth of a laugh and cruelty of a silence display Ruth’s astute knowledge of the world around her.
Danielle Stagger, who presents a driven and humorous Beneatha Younger, is our primary bridge between the past and the present as she dreams of medical school and questions her family’s values. Her intelligent and independent interpretation of Beneatha highlights the character’s progressive nature in the most captivating of ways. Though Aleta Hayes’ Lena often goes at odds with Beneatha, she manages to connect this family of dreamers with her dream to leave the apartment. She expresses as much emotional turmoil as Evans with the class and professionalism of many modern theatrical greats.
This production doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel with an experimental artistic conceit, and it shouldn’t. Grounding this work in its own hyperrealism is essential for its success. The set is an intricate and detailed realization of a 1950’s apartment, complete with hundreds of props and era-specific set dressing. This realism is further supported by Sara Huddleston and Jamie Tippett’s jazzy sound design. But this realistic world is still imagination-provoking. With the apartment’s walls and doors only partially present, the audience’s visibility is greater than that of the characters in the play. Additionally, the audience must mentally construct the Youngers’ missing walls. Since the audience’s presence is necessary to complete the world, this realistic yet theatrical set subtly prompts audience members to question their role in the narrative. Are they silent bystanders? Are they contributing to the apartment’s pressurization or unknowingly asserting influence in any way? Is the audience trapped in the apartment with the Youngers? These feelings, which for me derive from the set, work in tandem with the actors and the text to productively guide audiences toward their own critical analyses of injustice, giving the production real power to change and mold audience attitudes.
Supplementally, TAPS’ 47-page scholarly program booklet provides context and research that I have never encountered at another theatrical organization. It includes a detailed directorial analysis, dramaturgical positioning, historical background and cast interpretations of the play. This supports Elam’s directorial goals to display artistic excellence while informing and provoking audiences. Furthermore, the program reflects TAPS’ mission to discover a balanced marriage between theatrical scholarship and performance practice.
Just as the Younger family is prideful, TAPS and BLACKstage should be proud. Their choice to bring “A Raisin in the Sun” to campus was superb, and its execution is everything I could have asked for. The acting is shockingly revelatory and connected. Supported by an intricate set and Elam’s realized vision, the deep truths and criticisms embedded in the writing shine bright on the Roble Arts Gym mainstage. All future performances of “A Raisin in the Sun” are sold out, and deservedly so. But I was granted admission from the waitlist, and you could be admitted as well. Do yourself a favor and try to experience this show; you’ll be a better person because of it.