Cal Shakes opened the 2014 summer season with one of its' characteristic non-Shakespeare dramas although the themes and plot felt as Shakespearean as ever with “A Raisin in the Sun”. Kicking off a summer of dreams, RIS is actually a true story, the story of American dreams and what happens when one defers them. The playwright Lorraine Hansberry asks and answers the question do dreams deferred die like a raisin shriveling in the sun. Considering she died of pancreatic cancer at age 34 the question takes on a more pressing tone.
Related: 'South Pacific' opens 101st season of The Mountain Play on Mt. Tam
“A Raisin in the Sun” stars a commanding and dignified Margo Hall as the matriarch. Her hard-working and well-respected husband dies and the life insurance money comes to his wife Lena Younger, played by Margo Hall. She shares the tenement apartment with her married son who is the father of one with another on the way. Little did this principled and God fearing family know their decision to defy racists, not to sell out to racism and racial segregation, would take them to the Supreme Court in real life. The Supreme Court made a decision in 1948, just after the end of World War II in 1945.
This past chilly Saturday night with loyal patrons huddled together at the Bruns amphitheater in their sleeping bags, blankets, outdoor coats and hats, it seemed sponsor Peet’s Coffee & Tea was the drink of choice as the sun set, rather than the wines from the pre-show picnics under the eucalyptus trees. Cal Shakes’ “A Raisin in the Sun” directed by Patricia McGregor, alas, is no tale of wine and roses. It’s no schmaltzy commericialized block buster or even a classic television show, so there ain’t no nostalgia or singin’ of movin’ on up to the East Side, it’s time we got a piece of the pie. However the play Clybourne Park at ACT a few years ago with Imoze (EE mo Zay) Idehenre is the sequel, or a response to RIS. That makes the original feel like a pre-quel.
Location, location, location
Patrons huddled together for the play before going home, most likely nice places in the protected valleys of Mt. Diablo. The theater patrons white or black probably had never seen such low rent accommodations since college and probably not even then unless backpacking through Europe one summer. The shabby and cramped digs were only a play. Cal Shakes however did its’ best to make it real. The set designer used the real evening breeze to blow the laundry hanging on the lines from floor to ceiling as if in any tenement or working class hood. How the set designers' use of the bucolic setting in the brown foothills always delights. It's live and spontaneous. It’s that uncontrolled quality that punctuates each performance and makes it singular. Dede Ayite the set designer is no exception to such novelty and creativity and making it count.
“A Raisin in the Sun” does manage to feel down to Earth and real, uncontrived with no frills, with little comic relief generally. Exceptions would be the up and coming school girl Beneatha and her two suitors, the smart young college men as different from each other as black and white. That’s an expressive and lively Nemuna Cessay, a member of Actor’s Equity as is the cast generally. Cessay creates some good brother/sister chemistry and lack of it with Marcus Henderson as Walter Lee Younger. Ryan Nicole Peters plays his long suffering and loyal wife, the biblically named Ruth.
One of Beneatha’s suitors, from Nigeria and played by Rotimi Agbabiaka, brings a glorious native robe complete with head dress and wants Beneatha to come home with him. Not across town but home home. He wants to marry her and for her to join her in service to his tribe, for her to practice medicine with her ancestral people. He assumes ancestry is racial and by blood.
The other suitor played by York Walker comes in a super cool suit with a thin tie and white collegiate shoes, more of an assimilationist. His sense of community comes more from having money and education and nice looks in the commercial or fashion industry sense. Director McGregor does some subtle commentary through her double casting of Walker as a sophisticated and style conscious socialite; and a penniless, no-account schemer named Bobo who gets duped along with Beneatha’s brother. The three men had a scheme to open liquor stores but one ran with the investment money and disappeared. The audience never saw him to begin with, that’s a hint.
Meanwhile “A Raisin in the Sun” has become an American classic that has attracted notable names in revivals and currently plays on Broadway with Denzel Washington, shown in the video.
Hansberry, Black and a lesbian, recounts in her play this true drama that happened to her family when she was eight. Hansberry’s extended family tried to move into a house in a community with a restrictive covenant signed by the homeowners association but only half of it. Hansberry tells about why her family needed to make the move, from simple economic bargains; to needing to put down roots and feel grounded; to have one’s own home and finding comfort there rather than looking outside; to have enough room for a growing family. One catalyst though was that once in a lifetime nature of the family’s situation, to have that life insurance money and enough to make a move.
I myself grew up in San Leandro, California of San Francisco’s East Bay, which sharing a border with Oakland did have such a covenant at one time. The neighborhood was built mainly for post-war families to have a new life. Many if not all of the home buyers were first time buyers from out of state, places like Canada or Arkansas or Utah.
I continue to live in the little 1950s tract house I grew up in so continue to see dramatic changes first hand, while some of the homes remain inhabited by the original families now into the third generation. The 1960s and 70s in Washington Manor were crime-free, fun and it was a family oriented place to grow up. Kids went to school together for life and played at a roller skating rink, drive-in movie theaters and later even a Friday night strip for cruising teenagers. Actually I don't recall knowing anything about racism and didn't even know tacos came from a cuisine different from my bland English diet. Marina High classmates and the old Washington Manor neighborhood peeps keep in touch through Facebook and in person, sometimes meeting at Porky’s Pizza Palace on special occasions.
Note San Leandro, as many in the Bay Area know, is the location of two of Brian Copeland’s solo plays, “Not a Genuine Black Man” and most recently “Scion”, which is about a triple murder and not about Copeland himself. The murder site still stands empty, near the San Leandro BART station. It’s the Santos Linguisa sausage factory at 1746 Washington Avenue in San Leandro, where business owner Stuart Alexander mercilessly gunned down federal meat inspectors.
Don't just dream it, be it
Similarly, the art installation on site invites the patrons to list their own likes and dislikes after giving those of the writer and the director. Cal Shakes printed up the lists of Lorraine Hansberry herself along with director Patricia McGregor. The hand-out provides a half page at the bottom for the patron to list likes, dislikes and dreams. The categories are not mutually exclusive, for example Hansberry on April 1, 1960 lists her homosexuality in each category, like and dislike. Hansberry, says Cal Shakes, also listed Shakespeare as a like. Yes, we still live in a Facebook world and she was ahead of her time.
Be a Raisinet
Patricia McGregor, God Bless her, counts among her likes "Raisinettes" and I myself share that with my movie loving friend from Indiana. I in his honor tried to share them with my opera actor friends last night at movie night when we watched "Show Boat" from 1936. Check out the slide show.
Tickets and location
Tickets to Cal Shakes’ “A Raisin in the Sun” range from $20 to $72 for single tickets. Discounts go to seniors, students, patrons under 30 and to groups.
The theater operates a wonderful and free shuttle between Orinda BART and Bruns amphitheater. Little golf carts help the disabled or those in need at the theater entrance.
The theater offers free parking in a dirt lot and along the road. It’s at 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, California 94563. Signs mark the freeway exit, which drivers find just inside the Caldecott Tunnel on the Contra Costa side. Check out the new tunnel with fans and escape doors.
“A Raisin in the Sun” runs only to Sunday, June 15.
Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m..
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm..
Saturday matinee June 14 at 2 pm..
Sunday matinee, closing day June 15, 4 pm..
New this season: festivities pre-show in the grove on FRIDAYS
Bay Area musicians and storytellers and more appear on Friday in the eucalyptus grove before the show.
For more information: www.CalShakes.org