Review: A Raisin in the Sun at Wharf 1 Theatre, STC

Review by Charlotte Leamon

The scene is set in Chicago during the 1950s where the Younger family resides in a two-bedroom apartment, unfit for the 5 members of the household. The Younger’s are hard-working and resilient, where Walter Lee, often referred to as brother, works as a chauffeur as his mother Lena and wife Ruth housekeep, and his sister Beneatha studies to become a doctor. In this play we see how dreams and ones desires can break down walls of trust, selflessness and dignity.

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry explores topics of racial discrimination, power and identity. It is the first production of this play in Australia and celebrates one of America’s greatest dramatists along with playwrights Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams who address similar themes and topics.

Directed by Wesley Enoch, Sydney Theatre Company dresses the set as an elaborate and realistic run-down apartment where dirt is smudged across the wallpaper, wooden furniture wears away and a window looks out to a black bricked wall. In this particular performance due to Zahra Newman coming down with illness, Angela Nica Sullen played the role script in hand. Whilst the script was distracting at times and Sullen was evidently not prepared for the role, she adopted the concerning and tiresome motherly role well with elegant gestures as her character Ruth aimed to keep peace within the family and keep all members in order. As we witness Ruth order her husband and son Travis awake for work and school, the audience quickly deciphers the roles of the family as Walter Lee flaunts about with Ruth waiting on him. Ruth is a feminist in her own right, aiming to look after her family and keep her issues to herself as to not trouble others. On the other hand, Lena and Beneatha are more driven and outright in their opinions. Lena has earned this right as the eldest member of the family, however Beneatha (Angela Mahlatjie) has strong feminist opinions where she will not marry suitor George Murchison (Leinad Walker) for his money.

The lighting throughout was questionable, as there were slight dims and lifts in moments where perhaps the daylight was changing, or perhaps dream motifs were rising in the plot. However, this was not clear as it was not obvious enough at most times. Other than this, spotlight moments were shone on Walter Lee at times where he sails off into a monologue about his dreams and hopes. Overall, a lot more could have been achieved with lighting in this set. On both sides of the stage were the bedrooms which were represented very nicely through a window covered with a drape which made it feel as though the audience were peering in through the window of their house. The issue with this however, was that no matter where an audience member was placed, at least one bedroom was blocked off view as it was only visible through a small window.

As the plot slowly unravels in the first act, it is revealed that Lena’s late husband has a sum of $10,000 waiting to arrive as life insurance. Here, Hansberry explores the monetary value of black families in the 50s, where it can provide opportunity and a change in freedom. Walter Lee is set on opening a liquor store, a long life dream which he is insistent on creating with this money.

In the second act, Mrs Johnson played by Nancy Denis brings the stage back to life. Her humour and vibrant character brought laughs to the audience as did Ruth’s and Lena’s looks back and forth at each other at this disrupting house guest. Similarly, the character of George played an obnoxious college student and shone in his role. His gestures of disapproval and accent were all superb and received very well by audience members. With him of course, Mahlatjie as Beneatha was the star of the play. Her playfulness, sassiness and moments of emotion were realistic and not over done. My favourite moment was after a lawyer came to convince them to not move into a white suburb, and as he left she tries not to laugh. This unconventional reaction was true to her character and I had my eyes on her the whole time, as did the remainder of the audience.

Bert Labonté demonstrates the descent of distress and anger that Walter Lee faces as his dream is crushed by those around him, and by his own failures. To see this descent more clearly however, Labonté could have begun calmer in his character and developed to the rage more linearly. A stellar example of this is Lena played by Gayle Samuels, who displays a number of emotions which are unpredictable yet enticing to the plot. Her most spontaneous moment is when she uses the money to place a deposit on a house for Travis, in which the family is set to live in. Everyone but of course Walter Lee is delighted, and he resorts to drinking, quitting his job and giving up on supporting his family as his dream is not to come true. Lena tires of this, and offers him the remaining money to use wisely and carefully for his family’s future. Walter Lee however has other plans, and places it all on a dodgy deal for the liquor store. This pivotal scene sees Lena scream and Walter Lee cry in despair as she hits him and terrorises him for wasting what could have been immensely valuable to all of them.

A Raisin in the Sun is a story still relevant to todays society, as we see much of the same issues arise. With the addition of Sullen the dialogue was not as snappy or sharp is it otherwise should have been, and moments were often lost within the audience as the pace was off. However, the cast was exceptional and the actors Angela Mahlatjie, Gayle Samuels, Adolphus Waylee, Leinad Walker and Nancy Denis all shone delightfully in their roles.

Image Credit: STC