Friday, May 11, 2012

Langston Hughes asked, "What happens to a dream deferred?" It's not a bad question for a whole lot of 21st-century Americans

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Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier as Ruth and Walter Lee Younger in the 1961 film version of A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Daniel Petrie

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 stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over --
Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?
-- Langston Hughes
(quoted in the program for The Morningside Players' production
of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun)

"[Arthur] Miller’s outrage at a capitalist system he wanted to humanize has become our cynical adaptation to a capitalist system we pride ourselves on knowing how to manipulate. For Mr. Miller, Willy [Loman]’s middle-class dreams put the system that betrayed them to shame. In our current context, Willy’s dreams of love, dignity and community through modest work make him a deluded loser."
-- Lee Siegel, in a May 3 NYT op-ed piece,
"Death of a Salesman's Dreams"

by Ken

Sometimes things just sort of fit together.

If I were a more au courant culture consumer, I would probably be trying to strong-arm my way into Mike Nichols's blockbuster-hit Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, with Philip Seymour Hoffmann as the disintegrating Willy Loman, but while I'm prepared to believe that the production is as good as people are saying, I'm just not up to either the hassle or the expense. Then again, talented as Nichols is, I've had experience of seeing him turn a play of genuine depth, Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, into an audience-wowing spectacle about a millimeter deep.

Which perhaps made me especially receptive to the NYT op-ed from which I've quoted above, in which Lee Siegel suggests that the audiences who can afford this revival of "the most devastating portrait of punctured middle-class dreams in our national literature" are likely to find themselves sneering smugly at that pathetic loser Willy Loman, which is even less what Miller had in mind than the sloppily sentimental sympathy for Willy elicited by the play's original director, Elia Kazan.
In our time of banker hustlers, real-estate hustlers and Internet hustlers, of suckers and “muppets,” it is unlikely that anyone associates happiness and dignity with working hard for a comfortable existence purchased with a modest income. Even what’s left of the middle class disdains a middle-class life. Everyone, rich, poor and in between, wants infinite pleasure and fabulous riches.

Mr. Miller’s outrage at a capitalist system he wanted to humanize has become our cynical adaptation to a capitalist system we pride ourselves on knowing how to manipulate. For Mr. Miller, Willy’s middle-class dreams put the system that betrayed them to shame. In our current context, Willy’s dreams of love, dignity and community through modest work make him a deluded loser.

Perhaps there is a simple, unlovely reason “Death of a Salesman” has become such a beloved institution. Instead of humbling its audience through the shock of recognition, the play now confers upon the people who can afford to see it a feeling of superiority — itself a fragile illusion.

So no high-living Death of a Salesman for me. Instead last night I found myself in a modest but hearty basement theater a couple of blocks south of 125th Street for opening night of The Morningside Players' revival of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, directed by that fine actor Arthur French. And by coincidence, as I watched this still-powerful drama of a struggling three-generation black family on Chicago's South Side in 1956 contemplating a move into heretofore all-white Clybourne Park, I still had rolling around my head the comment offered Wednesday by CA-02 congressional candidate Norman Solomon, that unique mix of rolled-up-sleeves activist and serious thinker, in response to President Obama's declaration of support for marriage equality.

Norman's comment is worth reading in full, along with the comments of three of the other Blue America-endorsed candidates, as I passed them on in my Wednesday post. (And whose campaigns, I'm obliged to remind you, you can support on our Blue America page.) But this is the part I was thinking about:
President Obama's endorsement of gay marriage is controversial nationwide. But new steps for human rights always are.

The first time I went on a picket line -- to integrate a whites-only apartment complex -- the concept of fair housing was controversial. That was in 1966.

Today, while some Democrats like to talk about reaching across the aisle, I advocate reaching toward the stars of our ideals.

That's how civil rights laws became reality.

A Raisin in the Sun is more than a half-century old now, and American society has changed a lot in that time, and at the same time a lot hasn't changed, while a lot else has changed for the worse. As I've suggested at the top of this post, that line of Langston Hughes's, "What happens to a dream deferred?," has increasingly come to cross racial lines.

There was something way too present last night about the scenes in which the Clybourne Park white neighborhood protectionist Karl Lindner (Michael C. O'Day) came into the Younger family's home (the cramped apartment in which Lena and her late husband, Big Walter, raised a family while their dream of a real home and a better life slipped away) and, hoping to buy them out of their intention to move into his neighborhood, kept referring to "you people" and "your people."

The Morningside Players' Raisin in the Park obviously doesn't have the gloss of a Mike Nichols-directed Broadway extravaganza, but It's surely a tribute to Arthur French's direction that in this humble but serviceable venue, the whole cast engaged at least this audience member in the characters' inner urgencies, with all those overlapping and clashing layers of hope, disappointment, frustration, and bitterness in the members of the Younger family -- Carol Carter as Lena, the mostly serene faith-suffused matriarch; Leopold Lowe and Georgia Southern as her 35-year-old son Walter Lee and 20-year-old daughter Beneatha; Tonya Edmonds as Walter Lee's wife, Ruth; and Brandon Khalil as Ruth and Walter Lee's young son, Travis.

Perhaps the play's sweetest moment came when Travis produced the gift he had bought for his grandmother, based on her thwarted lifelong dream of having a garden of her own. In the Younger family's lives a lot of dreams have been deferred, but the most tangible residue is the scraggly potted plant Lena has nurtured as a substitute for that long-dreamt-of garden. At the end of the play I couldn't take my eyes off that damned plant -- or Lena, or Travis's gift. That struck me as an excellent sign of how successfully I had been caught up in the family's struggles and hopes.


I don't want to slight the remaining cast members, including the actors who play aspiring doctor Beneatha's very different suitors, Mervyn Morris and DeLance Minefee; I just didn't have occasion to mention them. The Morningside Players have performances of A Raisin in the Sun this week and next, Thursday-Saturday nights at 7:30pm and Saturday-Sunday afternoons at 3pm, in the TMP Theatre, 100 La Salle Street -- two blocks south of 125th Street, just east of Broadway.
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4 Comments:

At 9:53 PM, Blogger Suzan said...

You've made me so sorry that I no longer make trips to NY to see plays (and museums and music, etc., etc.), as I would definitely have seen this one if I could.

There is nothing better than an off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway play by real talent in a big play in a small space.

Oh, how I wish I had been there.

And I definitely wouldn't have been able to afford the "Salesman" revival. But I did see Dustin Hoffman, Lee J. Cobb and Brian Dennehy do their star turns as Willy (video) so I know Philip Seymour Hoffman would have been more than a worthwhile financial sacrifice to make (if it were possible).

Again, thanks for the review!

S

 
At 10:37 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Hey, Suzan, that's a mighty weighty list of Willy Lomans! I don't think you have to worry too much about missing one more.

Cheers,
Ken

 
At 8:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I saw that Danny Glover recently got fleeced in a financial scam it certainly made me think of a Raisin in the Sun.

Hope this is not offense as I love the play and the actor.

 
At 11:38 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I can't see any "offense," Anon. I didn't go into it in my bare-bones post, but for readers who don't know the play, one of the central events is son Walter Lee -- after his mother makes the risky but (she thinks) necessary decision to entrust the entire remains of the family's insurance windfall to him -- "investing" it all with a "friend" who promptly vamooses with the whole pile.

Cheers,
Ken

 

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