ANCHORAGE - Anchorage theater audiences are raving about "A Raisin in the Sun," the classic American drama by Lorraine Hansberry now running at the Performing Arts Center.
It’s a production of the nationally renowned Perseverance Theatre Company of Juneau – which also collaborated with Anchorage's Cyrano’s Theatre Company for a staged reading of the sequel to "Raisin" – "Clybourne Park."
Together, they offer a look at how the theme of racial conflicts and deferred dreams remains relevant in Obama’s America.
Lorraine Hansberry was just in her 20s when she wrote “A Raisin in the Sun” and became the first black woman to see a play of hers produced on Broadway and win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.
Following its 1959 debut, “A Raisin in the Sun" became a movie with Sidney Poitier in the now-iconic role of Walter Lee Younger, a chauffeur in Chicago who dreams of a better life for his family.
Walter Lee’s frustrations bring him into conflict with his mother, Lena.
"It's dangerous, son," she warns him as he prepares to leave their cramped apartment. "What's dangerous?" he asks.
"When a man goes outside his home to look for peace."
"Then why can't there ever be no peace in this house?"
The play takes its title from “A Dream Deferred' by the black poet Langston Hughes:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
“Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
“Or fester like a sore and then run?
“Does it sink like rotten meat?
“Or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet?
“Maybe it just sags like a heavy load
“Or does it explode?”
Although the play was concurrent with the civil rights movement half a century ago, actors in this production say it has relevance today.
Says Jamil Mangan, who plays Joseph Asagai: "It really speaks to us now because there is to me, I feel like there's a sense that the American dream is slipping away from us."
"It has to do with people wanting more for themselves and realizing if I want more for myself, I can achieve it, through hard work and determination," says Keith McCoy, playing Walter Lee.
The story is driven by insurance money paid to the family in the wake of the patriarch's death.
“Do you know what this money could do for us?" Walter Lee, who wants to open a liquor store, demands of his mother.
"When they get the money, everyone has their own dreams,” McCoy says. “No one's thinking together. Everyone's fighting against each other saying this is what I want to do with the money, this is what should happen with the money."
"So now money is life,” Ruth sighs. “Once upon a time freedom used to be life. Now it's money." Walter Lee responds: "Look, Mama, it's always been money."
And the tension goes up when Walter Lee's wife, Ruth, finds out she's pregnant.
“Did you plan it?” pries Beneatha, Walter Lee’s young sister, who dreams of medical school. “I mean, did you mean to, or was it an accident?”
"What do you know, about planning or not planning?" Ruth interjects. "She’s 20 years old, Lena." Ruth says "Did you plan it?" Beneatha presses again. Snaps Ruth: "Mind your own business." "It is my business,” Beneatha says. “Where is he going to sleep? On the roof?"
Eventually, everyone backs Lena in her decision to buy a house in an all-white neighborhood.
McCoy: "And through all the turmoil and all the conflict, you walk away with a happy ending, you walk away pleased that the right thing happened."
In addition to producing what's being considered a razor-sharp production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” Perseverance went further and teamed up with Cyrano’s Theatre of Anchorage to do a joint reading of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winner 'Clybourne Park,” sort of a sequel to “Raisin.”
Three actors from the “Raisin” cast participated in the reading along with Anchorage actors.
Says director Bostin Christopher: "'Clybourne Park is a meditation on ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’ It uses it as an inspiration, as a jumping-off point."
The play by Bruce Norris, a searingly funny torrent of words on the same subjects of race and real estate, is divided in two:
The first act takes place contemporaneously with “Raisin,” in 1959, with the white homeowners in Clybourne Park refusing to reconsider their sale to the younger family.
The only character in both plays, the neighborhood council representative from Clybourne Park, Karl Lindner, is arguing that it would be better to buy the house back.
"Don’t think it's a good idea," says Russ. "Well, Russ, I’m going to ask you at least to keep an open–" Linder persists.
"Karl? What'd I just ask you?" Russ snaps back.
"Well, I think you're being a tad unreasonable.”
“Well, I think we've reached the end of this particular discussion."
"Is that right?"
"Afraid it is."
"Just like that."
"Just like that.”
And the second act is set 50 years later – also in the house that the Younger family purchased.
In 2009, times have changed drastically, and it's a white family trying to buy the house.
"It's sort of that gentrification that a lot of our major cities are going through and which now the property values are risen because of that and it forces people of a lower income to sort of move out,” Mangan says.
Christopher: "It's a great testament and statement about how far we have come or not in the 50 years since 'A Raisin in the Sun.'“
Lorraine Hansberry was just 34 when she died in 1964, on the same night that her other major play, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” closed on Broadway.
But her insights about dreams and frustrations and race relations remain potent dramatic material in the 21st century.
"Clybourne Park” opened on Broadway tonight.
Despite that, Sandy Harper of Cyrano’s Theatre managed the unusual feat of getting rights ahead of time for Wednesday’s reading.
"A Raisin in the Sun" closes at the Performing Arts Center Sunday.
To see a full interview with Jamil Mangan, click here.
To see a full interview with Bostin Christopher, click here.
To see a full interview with Keith McCoy, click here.