‘A Raisin In The Sun,’ strong impact lingers

Oct 19, 2016 at 11:37 am
In "Misses Strata, (I-r): Zana Lister, Gracie Taylor, Shay Smith, Sabrina Spalding, Meghan Logue, Leila Toba
In "Misses Strata, (I-r): Zana Lister, Gracie Taylor, Shay Smith, Sabrina Spalding, Meghan Logue, Leila Toba Photo provided by Bard's Town Theatre

In 1959, when Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” opened a pre-Broadway run in Philadelphia (with a historic cast that included Ruby Dee, Louis Gossett, Jr. and Sidney Poitier), a critic wrote, “We do not know if Miss Hansberry has written a timeless play, but she has certainly written a timely one.”

More than a half-century later, we can think about the question of “timelessness” in two ways.

First, the play addresses a topic that is, if not timeless, at least tragically persistent. A multi-generational Negro family (in the language of the play) decides to move from a cramped tenement apartment (well realized in Liam Duffy’s set) to a new home. In short order, an emissary from the new neighborhood’s “improvement association” comes to visit — ostensibly in a compassionate effort to help the family better understand its own situation. “Rightly or wrongly,” he says, “for the happiness of all concerned, our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.” Replace the word “Negro” with “low-income,” and you find persistent variations on this story both here in Louisville (in the past and the present), and all across the country.

Second, and more enduringly, the heart of the play is a profound ethical struggle that tests idealism against expediency and illustrates that sometimes the finest examples of courage aren’t displayed in battles against heroic foes, but in resistance to the soft grind of petty humiliations.

Harnessing the power of “A Raisin in the Sun” isn’t easy. But Nipsey Green, director of the Smoked Apple Theater Group production that opened last week at The Vault, has done just that. He sets a relaxed pace that gradually reveals the cultural and generational crosscurrents affecting the family at the center of the story.

Lena’s daughter, Beneatha (Kristi Papailler), is torn between the lure of upwardly-mobile consumerism and emerging post-colonial philosophies that reject Negro cultural assimilation and call for renewed pride in African-American culture and heritage. That clash of ideas is represented by Beneatha’s frequent dating partner (conservative man-about-town George) and her friend, Asagai, an intriguing Nigerian intellectual (both characters are deftly portrayed by Jai Husband). Meanwhile, Lena’s son, Walter (Alpheaus Green, Jr.), is trying to support his wife, Ruth (Janelle Renee Dunn), and son, Travis (Jai Bracken, Jr.), on a chauffeur’s wages. For Walter, money alone can open the door to dignity, and for him the only way to achieve his dream is to make a big financial score in partnership with his friends, including Bobo (DonShea Stringer).

It’s a complicated family — but Hansberry’s exposition is clear and precise, Morgan Younge’s costumes accent the ideas and Green’s direction is so sympathetic and nonjudgmental that by the time the family meets Karl (Tom Pettey), the emissary from the white enclave, we might easily underestimate the power of the brewing conflict. Then, in the second half, Green and his cast unleash towering performances that transform what had been a poignant, but cozy, domestic drama into a desperate, explosive struggle so strongly and honestly contested that, despite the moving nobility of the resolution, I came away contemplating just how harrowing this choice was — and how tempting the alternative. In the intimate setting of the Vault 1031 performance space, this production has an impact that will linger in the mind. •

“A Raisin in the Sun” Through Oct. 23 Vault 1031 1031 S. Sixth St.  |  386-8992 Search Facebook for Smoked Apple Theater Group $16-$21  |  Times vary

Meanwhile, at The Bard’s Town Theatre, time is of the essence in the 2016 revival of Doug Schutte’s political farce, “Misses Strata.” The play has a venerable source — it’s a riff on Aristophanes’ 2,500-year-old “Lysistrata” — but some of the humor had clearly been ripped not from headlines (a quaint concept that used to represent timeliness), but from weekend Twitter feeds.

The premise of “Misses Strata” (and its source) is that women, long frustrated by the intractable stupidity of male leaders, have decided that the way to influence Congress is to cut off congress. Led by time-traveling Misses Strata (Sabrina Spalding), the women gird up their lascivious loins — with great reluctance — and pledge to forgo the pleasures of grabbing and being grabbed. Misses Strata’s allies include Hillary (Gracie Taylor); Michelle O (Shay Smith); Mira, the Intern (Zana Lister); Sister Sarah (Leila Toba); Laura Bush (Meghan Logue). Their male foils include Dick and Mitchie (both played by Ryan Watson); The Donald and Georgie Boy (both played by J.P. Lebangood); Obama (Tony Smith); and President Willie (Doug Schutte).

Racy jokes abound, of course — but given that recent news cycles have included anecdotes that, at one point, would have been labeled NSFW, double entendres seem positively uplifting — at least as uplifting as the comic codpieces sported by the cast’s male members.

The script offers plenty of bipartisan humor, but it would be a false equivalence to claim that all the roles offer equal comic riches. Leila Toba captures the zany, surreal verbal chaos of Sarah Palin with glee. And though the role of Laura Bush is generally comic, for one shining moment, Meghan Logue speaks from, and to, the heart in an inspiring, beautifully-rendered monologue, reminding us that government should not be a joke. As leader of the rebellion, Sabrina Spalding cultivates a modicum of dignity among the degradation. Gracie Taylor and Zana Lister have plenty of fun with Hillary’s distaste for interns. Shay Smith plays Michelle O with an appropriately-calm presence. On the male side, Lebangood sports a black beret in tribute to Georgie’ Boy’s burgeoning interest in art — and captures much of the glowering, looming physicality of The Donald. Ryan Watson caricatures Mitchie (who mostly utters phrases like “money” and “free speech”) and the gun-toting Dick. Tony Smith’s Obama acts as a genial host — whose cheerful demeanor is shaped by the imminent end of his term. And Schutte himself is brilliant in the lusty, frustrated role of seducer-in-chief.

This is fast-paced sketch comedy, full of quick hits and patter — and with luck, six months from now the jokes will be stale. But  for the moment, “Misses Strata” offers a comic escape from the world’s actual Twitter feeds. •

“Misses Strata” Through Oct. 23 The Bard’s Town 1801 Bardstown Road  |  749-5275 thebardstowntheatre.org $15-$18  |  Times vary