"Seem like God didn't see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams," someone says in A Raisin in the Sun. Hearing that line on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—which is when TimeLine Theatre Company's excellent revival of Lorraine Hansberry's classic drama had its opening night—felt a little like being doused in cold water.
Still, there's something in it. Despite important gains, it's hard to deny that 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech—and 150 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation—racial equality in America remains a dream deferred.
A couple weeks ago in the Reader, Steve Bogira took a grim assessment of how black Chicagoans have fared since the march. "It could be called a progress report," Bogira wrote, "except there's little progress to report." He found that a solid majority of the city's African-Americans still live in segregated neighborhoods; nearly 20 percent are unemployed (compared to 8 percent of whites), and more than a third live in poverty. The median income for African-American households is half that of white ones.
Though outright discrimination isn't as prevalent, the economic indicators have barely budged since 1959, when Hansberry introduced Broadway audiences to the Younger family of Chicago's south side. When the play opens, patriarch Big Walter has recently died after a lifetime of unrelenting work. All that labor has amounted to a $10,000 life insurance check, and it's the prospect of that money that lays bare each Younger's endangered but still potent hopes.
Big Walter's stalwart widow, Lena, wants to spend the money on a down payment for a house so that the family can finally move out of the shabby one-bedroom apartment they've lived in for decades. Daughter Beneatha, a budding feminist and Afrocentrist, needs tuition money for medical school if she's going to heal the sick of Nigeria. Her brother, Walter Lee, has plans to invest in a liquor store. And Walter Lee's bone-tired wife, Ruth, has a vague notion that a windfall means you might get to sit down for a few minutes.
In different ways, each of them sees the money as a last chance—whether for stability, advancement, escape, or rest. Walter Lee's plan is the least practical, but no one in the play is as desperate as he is to make it happen. His ambitions far outstrip his current job as a chauffeur; at 35 years old, he senses that his chances of becoming a titan of industry—never great to begin with—are getting slimmer by the day.
The canonical take on the role is of course Sidney Poitier's, preserved in the somewhat stilted 1961 movie version. But Poitier's mellifluous voice and dignified bearing make it hard to buy him as somebody who has to fight for respect. In TimeLine's production, by contrast, Jerod Haynes's Walter Lee can be boorish, rash, and petulant, especially when he doesn't get his way. He brings a tightly coiled sense of volatility and what Hansberry describes in the stage directions as a "quality of indictment" to every scene he's in. When his doomed-from-the-start business scheme falls apart thanks to hotheaded decision making and a lack of discernment, you're liable to find him at once infuriating and heartbreaking.
Haynes is equally matched by his principal sparring partner, Greta Oglesby's Lena. Given the character's strength and pious Christianity, she's sometimes presented as a long-suffering saint stoically weathering her troubles. But Oglesby conveys reservoirs of weariness and hurt beneath a seemingly unshakable facade and manages to suggest that Lena isn't immune to the flip sides of strength and piety: narrow-mindedness and a tendency to domineer.
As a result, her climactic decision to buy a house in the fictional all-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park comes across as neither a political statement ("I just tried to find the nicest place for the least amount of money for my family," she says) nor, necessarily, a happy ending. Knowing what we know about Chicago housing patterns, it seems more than likely that the Youngers will face hostility from their new neighbors, who instead of welcoming integration will probably end up moving away (which is exactly what happens in Bruce Norris's 2010 sequel, Clybourne Park).
In his vivid and admirably unsentimental staging, director Ron OJ Parson stays true to the script's kitchen-sink realism without layering on so many period details that the play seems a relic of the past. There's a 50s jazz soundtrack and at one point the smell of frying bacon, but touches like these never distract from the intensity and veracity of the performances—allowing us to appreciate, in case we had forgotten, the full power of Hansberry's still-moving, still-contemporary masterpiece.