What happens to a play preserved? Does it soak and swell in the anxieties of the generations it outlasts? Or does it rush like the Heraclitean river in which we submerge ourselves occasionally, both our changing bodies and the rushing waters encountering each other for the first time, each time? Does it soften and rot, or does it harden into a mask of its fine qualities? (And, in any case, which is the worse fate: to decay or to petrify?) Or does the play preserve us? Does a historical play, a social play, keep our aspirations alive through decades of frustration or complacency? We call productions of old plays “revivals” because we believe we are waking something from sleep, or death; but is it also the actors and the audience who, touched by the play, walk again? I don’t know. I don’t know how theatre works—how a company that performs only new works might have a different relationship to its audience than a company that, like Trinity Rep, performs contemporary, original, and classic works; or how plays, actors, and audiences collaborate nightly in the secular miracle of insurrection, each raising the other up against the claims of indifference. But I do know that despite my skepticism, and despite my persistent reservations, Trinity Rep’s production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun does work some kind of miracle. This miracle, I think, is not specifically related to the realization of equality in a crudely hierarchical country, or to a so-perfect production of the play that it sends us into the world, changed forever. It is rather the insistence that art itself can be enough—that water need not be turned to wine, that a dream deferred is better than no dream at all.
When A Raisin in the Sun opens, the Younger family, a working-class black family on Chicago's South Side, is beginning a new day—except that they’re not: it’s the same day they have been living for generations. While her mother-in-law sleeps, Ruth Younger (Lynette Freeman) rouses her son, Travis, for school, and, with equal difficulty, her husband, Walter (Joe Wilson, Jr.), for work. Even after Walter wakes up, dreams still rattle around in his head; his first substantive line—about the life insurance check the Youngers are waiting for after the death of Walter’s father—shows that he lives in a world of fantastic expectation. Walter, a chauffeur, hopes to use the $10,000 dollar check to purchase part of a liquor store with his friends Bobo and Willy. Ruth disapproves of these friends but doesn’t know how to replace their callow encouragement with her own form of succor; his mother, Mama (Barbara Meek), disapproves of the liquor store, but hasn’t yet determined how the money should be spent. When the check arrives and Mama puts a down payment on a house with it, Walter twists into a tighter knot of fury; a tangle of dreams and deprecations, Walter all but disappears to his family and the world. How he comes back suggests that the play is not so much about waking up to the real world as sorting out which dreams are worth chasing and which dreams, perhaps, can wait.
Walter’s inarticulate, impatient rage is set off against his sister Beneatha’s intellectualized sense of grievance. She is in college, studying to be a doctor, but she has also been politicized by her experiences on campus. If Walter’s distinction is his headlong rush into an uncertain future—“a big looming blank space—full of nothing”—Beneatha’s is her idealization of her African roots, which she discusses with her Nigerian suitor, Asagai. Underyling her buzzwords is a deep insecurity, a spectacular naïveté: she holds her tempestuous brother beneath contempt—“there is nothing left to love,” she bristles—but her own yearnings are just as impulsive and subjective. It is to Lorraine Hansberry’s credit that A Raisin in the Sun is not a contest but a collage of ideas. She clearly condemns our avaricious culture, but doesn’t ridicule Walter for wanting to be a part of it. And if Hansberry seems generous in her sympathy towards Beneatha, she also burdens her with lines too serious for any audience to take entirely seriously. This is not to say that the play is indecisive or compromising, but rather that its conclusion is almost radically modest. The Langston Hughes poem from which Hansberry took her title asks if a dream deferred explodes; her answer, it seems, is that all dreams are deferred, so we approach the elusive good life asymptotically. The play begins with a waking up and ends wistfully: “We don’t want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors,” Walter says in the last scene, hopeful that life can be a series of smaller and smaller dreams.
Hansberry maps the path to this hope through a nightmare; she follows Walter as he drives himself mad with insatiable want. Walter dreams big, and with all the nuance of a child. He is a bundle of contradictions: a self-destructive dynamo. Joe Wilson, Jr.’s performance is a sometimes shocking evocation of this suicidal energy. It is, in short, annihilating. Wilson, who said in an interview with the Boston Globe that he spent less time developing this role before rehearsals than he usually does, seems to be still prodding and stretching his characterization as we watch. He must show us the depths to which Walter sinks before rising up again, and he has decided to do this without reserving any special dignity, any performative pride, for himself. Walter has no stoic strength, no particular, ennobling resolve: so Wilson gives us a performance that trembles with weakness and sputters impotently. He does not merely act pathetic, but shows the audience what a desperate man can be reduced to. He risks us rejecting his performance, which is an act of almost incredible vulnerability. Wilson gives us Walter’s debasement through the surrender of his own agency: as if mirroring, and not just impersonating, Walter's self-hatred, Wilson challenges us to judge him. Acting like this is brave, but we don’t recognize it as such until the show is over. Simply put, we don’t envy Walter's humiliation. To an audience, vivid depredation has a faintly glowing beauty—it is suffering for our sins—but Joe Wilson wrings the light out of his performance. He, like Walter, suffers in a darkness of his own making.
But he does not do this alone. His fellow actors comprise one of the most impressive ensembles you will see on a Rhode Island stage this year. Barbara Meek as Mama, shaken but still strong, is the show’s empathetic center. Meek suffuses Mama’s bewilderment at the world’s corrosive meanness and her own children’s dissolution with determination and yearning. Mama’s daughter-in-law, Ruth, meets the world’s challenges with pragmatic resignation; if Walter overestimates his abilities and aptitudes, Ruth underestimates hers. Hansberry’s depiction of Ruth is strangely reductive—Walter accuses her of smallness, and the script doesn’t do much to disprove him—but Lynette Freeman gives her size and depth by exploring the limits of her affection and disappointment. And Angela Thomas makes a strident and stubborn—but not humorless—Beneatha. We think we know how their story ends—dream realized; happiness abundant—but we don’t; and they don’t either. It’s not a sad ending, but it’s not exactly victorious either. Our country has been through a nightmare, but perhaps now, in an era lit by the bright words change and hope, we are finally ready, all of us, to try to be good neighbors.