‘A Raisin in the Sun’ Off Broadway Review: Robert O’Hara Rethinks a Classic to Brilliant Effect

The director also delivers the best ensemble performing on the New York stage right now

raisin in the sun
Francois Battiste and Tonya Pinkins in "A Raisin in the Sun" (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Finally, someone gets “A Raisin in the Sun” absolutely right. That someone is Robert O’Hara, who directs the awesome new revival of the Lorraine Hansberry classic, which opened Tuesday at the Public Theater. What makes this production perfect, beyond being the best acted show in New York City at the moment, is how it addresses a problem in the play that concerned even its original cast members.

In 2004, I interviewed Ossie Davis shortly after the opening of the 2004 Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” starring Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald. Back in 1959, Davis understudied and later replaced Sidney Poitier in the role of the original production’s Walter Lee Younger, the husband and father who wants, against his mother’s wishes, to take his dead father’s insurance money to invest in a liquor store.

Davis recalled “debates” among himself, Poitier and others in the cast, including his real-life wife, Ruby Dee, who originated the role of Walter’s wife, Ruth. According to Davis, Hansberry wrote one play, but “the white middle-class audiences and ladies from Queens experienced another drama,” the actor said. The damper effect of the play’s Mama character on Walter’s rage troubled the original cast. “The American white community found in Mama an agent that spoke for them, that they could depend on,” Davis said. “No matter how explosive her son might be, Americans knew that Mama could be depended on to make things right. And that’s not what Lorraine set out to write. But that’s what the play had to accept.”

Davis went on to explain, “For Lorraine, ‘Raisin’ was a half-victory. If she had lived longer, we would have called her to task: What about that explosive young man? What’s going to happen to him now?”

O’Hara not only answers Davis’s questions in this new revival of “Raisin,” he removes Mama as any source of comfort for the American white community.

O’Hara’s production achieves this feat by accenting significant moments in the play so they have the effect of muting the scene in which Mama uses Walter’s young son, Travis, to make the right decision regarding the house she has recently bought in Chicago’s mostly-white Clybourne Park. First, the always commanding Tonya Pinkins presents a far pricklier Mama than we’ve met in the past. Pinkins doesn’t just slap Beneatha (Paige Gilbert practically giving us Lorraine Hansberry in the flesh) when her daughter defies the authority of God; this Mama practically breaks the young woman’s arm.

Her bossiness also gives Walter (Francois Battiste) the best reason for wanting to use that insurance money for his own purposes. The man needs to break free and Mama is just one reason why. Pinkins’ performance also creates twin brackets with her use of the young Travis (Toussaint Battiste and Camden McKinnon, alternating performances) to control Walter’s rage. According to Ossie Davis, what Broadway audiences loved about Mama is how she ordered Travis back into the room after his father has told the boy to leave. Mama essentially humiliates her own son to make the right decision and not sell the house back to the Clybourne Park committee of white people.

O’Hara’s direction mutes that moment by stressing a twin scene, earlier in the play, where Mama first uses Travis to control her own son. Instead of being honest with Walter and telling him directly that she has used a great deal of that insurance money to put a down payment on the new house, Mama breaks the news to the whole family by telling Travis how wonderful his life there in Clybourne Park will be. Everyone is delighted, especially Walter’s wife, Ruth (Mandi Masden), who can’t wait to escape that crummy little two-bedroom apartment where five people live and Travis has to sleep on the living room couch. Masden effectively projects overwhelming joy; her emotional outburst here is palpable and justified, but the performance also lets us know how little this woman understands or even sympathizes with her own husband. Francois Battiste’s slow-searing silence here gives context to Mama’s behavior that adversely colors that second moment of control that she exerts over son and grandson.

Between those two dramatic brackets, O’Hara doubles down on Walter’s rage by breaking the theater’s fourth wall so Francois Battiste can speak to us directly. It is here that he delivers Walter’s crucial speech: “I figured it out. Life just like it is. Who gets and who don’t get.” It’s a long speech and there are bits of dialogue spoken by the three female characters, but those women now remain in another space, back in in the Younger living room. Far more prominent, Walter stands downstage alone in the harshest of spotlights. There’s even a nifty visual reference to the play “A Raisin in the Sun,” as if to say, This is not your granddaddy’s “Raisin.” The whole speech is so indelible that it overshadows Mama’s following scene with Travis, typically the play’s big a-ha moment that those “ladies from Queens” adored and grabbed on to for consolation.

O’Hara has also added a scene in the second act that has been cut from all three Broadway productions of “Raisin.” (Hansberry wrote the scene, but it’s not even included in the archival typewritten and heavily annotated script of the play housed at the Library for the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center.) In the scene, a noisy neighbor (Perri Gaffney) pays a visit so she can freeload from the Youngers. While eating their pie and drinking their coffee, Mrs. Johnson manages to dump on Ruth and Mama’s dream of living in Clybourne Park. Gaffney personifies the worst neighbor in anyone’s neighborhood. She’s so insufferable that Beneatha makes a joke comparing her to the KKK. Our immediate reaction is to dismiss the woman. The obnoxious Mrs. Johnson, unfortunately, possesses 20-20 foresight, and O’Hara makes that evident in a dialogue-less coda that turns into a real coup de theatre thanks to Clint Ramos’ radically morphing set, Alex Jainchill’s lighting and Elisheba Ittoop’s sound design.

Other departures from the norm are also as insightful as they are arresting. Mama’s dead husband (Bjorn DuPaty), whose death and insurance policy drive the action of the play, makes occasional visits to the apartment. The character’s line “Seem like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams,” usually spoken by Mama in remembrance of her husband, is now delivered by the ghost.

Another departure is a brief moment of physical intimacy between Ruth and Walter. It’s typically staged in the living room, but O’Hara’s direction carries it offstage to the bedroom where the couple engages in no-holds-barred lovemaking. The dialogue that follows, usually delivered on stage, is now heard coming from that bedroom. Privately, Ruth and Walter remain a viable couple, and O’Hara lets us know that by moving the scene off stage where its intense intimacy can be emphasized. It’s a needed reference, because from the moment the curtain goes up on this “Raisin,” we see a marriage in deep trouble. The original “Raisin” opened in 1959, three years before “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” had its premiere on Broadway. Hansberry didn’t use Edward Albee’s colorful language, but as interpreted here in this truly great revival, she painted a far more ferocious domestic drama.