Years and years ago (like 1951) African American poet Langston Hughes asked a point-blank question: What happens to a dream deferred? While flashbacks from grade nine English class prompt us along to subsequent questions- does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?– director Weyni Mengesha stops here, taking the audience through a spectacularly contrived mulling-over of this notion on stage at the opening night of Soulpepper’s A Raisin in the Sun.
Inspired by Hughes’ poem, Harlem, American playwright Lorraine Hansberry sets the broken promise that is an unfulfilled dream in Chicago (South Side), where the dreamers are shoeboxed-up in a tiny – yet charming- apartment where rooms are separated by curtains and the family room couch converts to a bed at night. This is the dwelling for the Youngers- where Mama Lena is queen and her son, Walter Lee, along with his wife, Ruth, their son, Travis, and Walter’s sister Benny (Beneatha), conduct themselves under her “tyranny.”
The play opens with Ruth (a ravishing Abena Malika) cooking eggs for Walter (Charles Officer), weighed-down by the ball and chain of a deadend job as a chauffer and an insatiable itch to dig his family out of poverty and buy his wife some pearls. Bahia Watson flits across the stage as his headstrong and flamboyant sister, Benny, who dreams of becoming a doctor and not needing a man, toying with suitors and her family’s patience along the way.
Throughout the show, the feeling of dreams being swallowed up by reality is unshakeable. Maybe because the small fortune Lena (Alison Sealy-Smith) comes into -insurance money from her husband’s death- can’t satisfy them all: investments for Walter, med school funds for Mizz Independent, and the chance at a real home for Ruth and Travis. But the frustration of the Youngers’ collective failed dreams is aggravated by the distinctive intolerant racial climate of 1960s America. Their attempt to purchase a house in an all-white neighbourhood stirs backlash within the community (“That’s the way the crackers crumble,” notes Ruth.)
The show captures the lifespan of a dream, from hope to heartache to that bottom-of-the-barrel darkness that comes right before our deepest yearnings crossover to reality. And we get to be a part of that magic, witnessing the triumphs over financial woes, racial barriers, their limits, themselves, which only strengthen an unrelenting Daydream Believer and his Homemaking Queen.
The Deets: A Raisin in the Sun. Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Distillery District. Oct. 19-Nov. 13. For tickets, call 416.866.8666