One of the core works of modern American theatre, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun takes its title from the opening lines of the poem “Harlem” by the great African-American poet Langston Hughes:
“What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”
By focusing on the experiences of a single family, the Youngers, the play personalizes the plight of millions of black Americans who faced obstacles in joining the country’s increasing prosperity after World War II.
The Youngers live in a tiny tenement apartment until matriarch Lena buys a home with her late husband’s insurance money. The only problem: The house is in a white neighborhood. The neighbors try to buy the Youngers out, and when the family decides to take a stand they all must make some difficult personal choices.
(Raisin was inspired by a real-life lawsuit brought by the playwright’s father, Carl Hansberry, against racially discriminatory housing covenants in Chicago.)
In addition to being one of the first mass-audience works to highlight civil rights, Raisin was also the first mainstream play to feature an all-black cast (Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee headlined the original Broadway lineup).
The City of Savannah’s Cultural Arts Theatre production of Raisin in the Sun also features an all-star lineup of the area’s best African-American talent, including Priscilla Swindell as Lena, Aleta Alston-Toure’ as Ruth and Michael P. Jones as Walter “Brother” Younger.
Director Clinton Powell -- the Connect Savannah reader’s choice for Best Spoken Word Artist in 2005 -- is no slouch himself, being one of the earliest and strongest links in the local history of black theatre.
“I’ve been doing poetry for so long, people don’t realize that my background is actually in theatre,” Powell says.
“That goes back to Jody Chapin and Jim Holt and City Lights Theatre, back when I was with the Eastside Players. Me and Priscilla Swindell, along with Rodney Creech, started the Eastside Players, which was the only African-American troupe in town.”
Powell says he wanted to direct Raisin because of the continuing currency of its central conflict.
“For a long time parts of Savannah, like the Southside, were just not populated by African-Americans,” he says. “That’s kind of how I see it now, with these gated communities on the islands and in Georgetown.”
Powell says the play’s bottom line is that change is difficult, but often necessary.
“For me it’s about how far a segment of society or a community will go to keep their neighborhood how they want it,” he says.
“You always have people who try to progress and be better, and another segment that doesn’t,” he says. “Maybe they don’t see their actions as racist, but they just don’t want change.”
Cultural Arts Theatre performs A Raisin in the Sun May 4, 5, 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. and May 6 and 13 at 3 p.m. at the Black Box at S.P.A.C.E., 9 W. Henry St. $10 general admission, $7 senior or student with ID.