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Post Racial or Post Raisin?

Posted by on Tuesday, May 2, 2017 in Analysis Essay, , , .

Nashville Rep’s recent production of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic A Raisin in the Sun is a striking reminder of the naivete and falsehood of claiming that we have achieved a “post-racial” society. The talkback I attended with members of the cast erased any ambiguity about the play’s continued relevance in 2017. Early on, an audience member asked how the cast deals with the oppression their characters face. Lauren F. Jones, fresh off her vivacious performance as Beneatha Younger, responded immediately with a single word—“Experience.” Soon after, a different spectator posed a question to the only white cast member: “How do you deal with playing a racist every night?” There was an audible intake of breath from the row I was sitting in (the seats filled by other members of Vanderbilt’s Theatre Criticism course and our professor). I gasped not because Matthew Carlton (Karl Lindner) also answered “experience,” but because that answer would not have shocked me. In the current social climate, with racist comments coming from both political figures and ordinary citizens, the casual racism displayed by Carlton’s character did not feel foreign or outdated. As a white woman, I cannot speak for this cast or the African American experience, but I will point out the importance of staging this show in 2017, both as an affirmation of the African American experience and as a reminder that similar events continue to occur.

The theatre community frequently faces criticism for its continued failure to adequately represent narratives of people of color, women, and others with diverse perspectives. This can be particularly true in a smaller city like Nashville, with fewer productions and a more homogeneous theatre-going audience. As such, Nashville has an even greater need for productions like Nashville Rep’s A Raisin in the Sun. Lorraine Hansberry’s enduring masterpiece is not just the first Broadway play written by an African American woman or directed by an African American; it may be the first play with a diverse creative team seen by audiences today, thanks to the oversaturation of white male voices in the market. Of the nine shows produced in Nashville Rep’s last two seasons, women only wrote two, A Raisin in the Sun and Rapture, Blister, Burn. Raisin is the only one written by a person of color. The play’s authentic depiction of an African American family’s life on the South Side of Chicago at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement remains vital and compelling in 2017, due to both the current conversation around racial dimensions of housing and gentrification and the continued relevance of issues such as abortion and Beneatha’s progressive political values. Beyond its depiction of an African American perspective, the play also features three richly developed female characters whose stories grip us for reasons other than their relationships to men. This play goes beyond what non-traditional casting accomplishes by putting the narratives of underrepresented groups onstage to be understood and appreciated in ways that we usually reserve for the “neutral” character of the white male. Presenting this family’s story affirms the experiences of these characters and the groups they represent. This in turn helps validate the multicultural society in which we live and the importance of recognizing and developing empathy for groups whose experiences differ from our own.

This affirmation of diverse narratives and the acknowledgment of various intersections of our multicultural society are particularly important in the social and political environments of 2017. Obama’s presidency popularized the notion of the “post-racial” society, in which racial discrimination no longer exists, presumably due to the election of an African American man as our head of state. The backlash to Obama’s election, both during his presidency and during the 2016 campaign cycle, demonstrated this claim’s falsehood. The focus on the “plight” of the white working class contributed to the rejection of this myth, and the election of Donald Trump as Obama’s successor shows just how nonexistent the post-racial society is. In a post-racial society, we would consider shows about the African American experience either obsolete or relics of a past that no longer exists. Thus, in the supposed absence of systemic oppression, there would be no need to stage A Raisin in the Sun, or any other work about oppression faced by the African American community. However, it is as necessary as ever to continue staging works about the experiences of minority communities. A Raisin in the Sun is particularly vital for this purpose because of its depiction of the racism experienced by the Youngers in their daily lives and in ways that do not seem as overt or violent as a largely white audience might expect. The play’s realism invites spectators in to see the limitations imposed by both society and themselves, and to see the casual, “well-meaning” racism perpetrated by Lindner, the play’s only white character. Nashville Rep’s production displays this family’s experience and the ways racism influences that experience, while also reflecting forces still at work in society today.

I found A Raisin in the Sun heart wrenching for many reasons, not least of which was its depiction of systemic racism and its casual manifestations. Because the “neutral” white male character found in most mainstream plays does not experience systemic oppression, audiences rarely see depictions of these systems or their impact. This show struck me with its willingness to freely explore the inner lives and struggles of the Younger family as I watched Ruth admit to seeking an abortion, Beneatha voice her ambitions, and Walter confess that he lost the family’s insurance money. This production demonstrated theatre’s capability to connect to an audience full of people who look entirely different from its main characters and who have different lives and worldviews. You do not have to be African American to connect to and empathize with the Youngers, which makes Lindner’s appearance even more jarring to the audience hoping for the family’s success and wellbeing. A Raisin in the Sun holds continued power and resonance for a society that reflects these same experiences decades later.

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