A Raisin in the Sun has come to be considered an American classic in the same league as Death of Salesman, The Glass Menagerie and Long Day's Journey Into Night.
It's fascinating to see how well Lorraine Hansberry's play has aged in a production at the Off Center Theater. It's also a good history lesson. Before the success of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, before the movies of Spike Lee, there was Hansberry and her tough-minded but loving take on the black family. What her play has to say is as pertinent now as when it was first staged in 1959.
If only the West Coast African-American Theater Troupe from Sarasota was up to the play. The cast members are eager to please _ they come out after the show to mingle with the audience _ but most of the acting is just barely adequate. Fortunately, there's one important exception.
The exception is Martin Taylor, who plays Hansberry's angry hero, Walter Lee Younger. Almost singlehandedly, the actor makes this a play worth watching. Taylor has a few rough edges, but he also has the essential dramatic vitality that causes you to care about how a chauffeur from the South Side of Chicago chooses to lead his life.
Hansberry made crafty use of Walter Lee. A Raisin in the Sun is dominated by women characters, but it's black male rage at being held down by the white man that gives the play its kick.
"A job?" Walter Lee cries to his mother. "I open and close car doors all day long. I drive a man around in his limousine and I say, "Yes, sir; no, sir; very good, sir; shall I take the Drive, sir?' Mama, that ain't no kind of job . . . that ain't nothing at all."
Walter Lee wants to put the insurance payout from his father's death into a liquor store. Mama (Paula Farlin) wants to buy a house with a yard in a white neighborhood. The other Youngers hold on for dear life as the generational battle is waged.
The strongest impression left by A Raisin in the Sun is one of hope that things will get better for the Youngers. And has life improved for their real-life counterparts since the '50s? Sadly, the answer to that question is no for those in ghettos overrun by drugs and gang violence, teenage mothers and absent fathers. The black family is in trouble today.
Director Nate Jacobs has taken some liberties with Hansberry's script, inserting into Act 2 a musical number that was not in the original version of the play. Called Black Man's Lament, it's actually quite an effective scene in which four men sing about how "nobody knows the trouble I've seen as a black man," backed by La Terry Butler on electric organ, but the audience ought to be informed of the change. It's not mentioned in the program.
A Raisin in the Sun
Lorraine Hansberry's play in a production by the West Coast African-American Theater Troupe at Off Center Theater of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Shows at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $10 and $12. Call 229-7827.