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Posted: 12:00 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012

Can modern kids relate to ‘Raisin in the Sun’?

The play’s powerful racial themes left a high school cast in tears.



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Can modern kids relate to ‘Raisin in the Sun’? photo
Cast members of “A Raisin in the Sun”: Tierra McClendon, Dylan Jackson, A’Keyah Williams (seated), Vanessa Pierre-Pierre (standing), and Cameron Jackson.
Can modern kids relate to ‘Raisin in the Sun’? photo
Garry Q. Lewis, Dreyfoos School of the Arts teacher and director of “A Raisin in the Sun”

By Leslie Gray Streeter

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Cameron Jackson lives in a time where a biracial guy like himself is sitting in the Oval Office. But this weekend, he’s being asked to consider a reality, just 50 years ago, in which a little black boy’s wildest career dream might be becoming a bus driver.

“Things are a lot better, but there’s still a lot of problems. I connected with it,” says Jackson, 17, who steps into Sidney Poitier’s frustrated shoes tonight in the premiere of the Dreyfoos School Of The Arts’ production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in The Sun.”

His character, Walter Lee Younger, is a struggling, misguided but proud black father in the late 1950s whose family is preparing to move from the housing projects of Chicago to their own house in the suburbs. The Youngers, including Walter Lee’s stoic mother, increasingly socially conscious sister Beneatha, wife Ruth and young son Travis live at a time of changing racial, cultural and identity-driven standards, and ponder which dreams are and are not for them.

Travis, indeed, aspires to drive for the Chicago Transit Authority. There’s obviously nothing wrong with being a bus driver, but it’s the sentiment of a kid who’s had to focus on stability over dreams, because pie-in-the-sky dreams are for someone else.

This was no post-racial society - the color of Walter Lee’s skin could determine, literally and in some cases legally, the jobs he could have, or, as the play painfully portrays, where he could live. Cameron and his fellow cast members haven’t experienced that. But they still got it.

During one particular take of the scene where Travis announces his bus driver dreams, “Cameron broke down in tears,” says musical theater and dance teacher Garry Q. Lewis, the production’s director.

“At the moment, everyone realized what those words meant. It was such a breakthrough for the whole cast. The whole cast was in tears, because they realized what the play meant,” he says.

The world has, obviously, become a different and in many ways improved place since 1959, when Hansberry became the first African-American woman playwright to see her work produced on Broadway. We have a black president, black millionaires and CEOs and Secretaries of State and 4-star generals.

Heck, things are even better than they were in 1989, the year I first saw “Raisin” live, when a professor straight-up told me that I couldn’t be a film critic, because there weren’t any black female film critics. We’re not there yet. But we’re closer.

So when I heard that Dreyfoos was producing Hansberry’s Tony-nominated masterpiece, I wondered how it would translate to these modern kids, who’ve seen things that would have seemed impossible when even their parents were their age. Would it be as alien to them as Elizabethan England or Starfleet Academy?

In some ways, thankfully, it is. But they still understand what the play is trying to tell them.

“It’s about being from a strong community and having big dreams for your family, and being rooted in your faith,” says A’keyah Williams, 18, of Boynton Beach, who plays Walter Lee’s deeply religious Mama.

“Things are so integrated, but it’s about taking a step back to where everything was segregated. It’s very eye-opening,” says Sam Leopold, 17, the play’s associate director. “It makes you realize how much has changed in such a relatively short period of time. Look at the President - that’s opened up so many doors to this generation…So it’s so important to be doing this play in America.”

Director Lewis explains that the play “is about the American dream. We all still want the best for our families, no matter what. We’re still worried about the economy. These characters, some of them, are working two or three jobs, and we’re seeing that now.”

Hansberry, who was in her late 20s when ‘Raisin’ debuted, took her title from Langston Hughes’ powerful poem “A Dream Deferred,” pondering what happens when that American dream Lewis invokes is denied. That’s something that so many in this economy can relate to, across color lines.

But Lewis chose “Raisin” to make his Dreyfoos directorial debut because the school had never done a straight play written for a black cast “and it was time,” he says.

And while Dreyfoos’ productions of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “The Wiz,” both with originally all-black casts, were cast colorblind, everyone involved agreed that “Raisin In The Sun” must be cast traditionally. That means that all but one of the roles, that of Karl Lindner, of the neighborhood association from the mostly white neighborhood the Youngers have bought a house in, are played by African-American actors.

“A lot of it is universal, but I don’t think (casting non-black actors as the Youngers) would work, because Lorraine Hansberry was very specific in her vision, about a specific time, and her characters have to be who they were written to be,” A’keyah says.

Still, people can relate - you don’t have to be Jewish to be moved by “Schindler’s List” or British to cry during “Chariots of Fire.” You just have to be human. “Raisin” was always about more than just integration, or even about race, encompassing themes of the meaning of manhood; of embracing a faith or political belief system different than the one you were raised with and of struggling for identity.

The kids particularly identified with the powerful scene - my favorite - where the increasingly questioning Beneatha tells Mama that “there simply is no blasted God” - “Mama is so innocent and sweet, and you see it just flip, and her love and her passion for her religion just comes out, and she walks up and just slaps the hell out of her. I see the play every night, and every time it still gets me,” Leopold says.

Lewis, who encouraged his cast and crew to talk to him about the difficult emotions and themes the play evokes, says he believes that “they will remember this for the rest of their lives. I think seeing this will change their lives.”

And I believe that. Of course, there is still racism - the tone of the current presidential election and the message boards of this very paper are proof enough of that. But the open discrimination of Hansberry’s world is shocking enough that some of the young actors had real problems summoning it.

And that’s a good thing.

Max Prissert, 14, of Palm Beach Gardens, who plays Lindner, had the hardest time with the phrase “you people,” said as Lindner is explaining why “you people” shouldn’t be offended that their new neighbors want to pay them not to be their neighbors. It must be pronounced disdainfully and patronizingly, as if chewing something rancid.

“It was difficult to play that emotion. Even with a phrase that’s so simple, it was weird to think that way,” he says. “These are my friends,” he says, gesturing to his cast mates. “I couldn’t imagine making someone feel that way. I didn’t like it.”

But when he finally internalized it, he got it. And it made him cry. Not that it’s good to make a kid cry, but it’s an important point. If we can keep putting ourselves in the shoes of our friends, neighbors, co-workers or even strangers, and remembering each other, that’s a start. We’re not perfect. But that’s a start.


A RAISIN IN THE SUN: Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m., Meyer Hall, Dreyfoos School Of The Arts, West Palm Beach. Also Nov. 9-10, 7 p.m. Information: 561-802-6052

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