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Set Design and Limitations on Identity: Walter Lee in Nashville Rep’s A Raisin in the Sun

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

tn-500_raisin-waltersonLorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is an unprecedented classic surging into existence at a time when it might have seemed least likely. Due to a cast of all-black characters and hesitant investors, producer Philip Rose had to work for a year to earn enough money to produce the play, but it garnered huge success. In 1959, it became the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, as well as the first with a black director. Raisin’s success launched it on a production career long outlasting its designation as “first,” with fuel enough to find a home in 2017 in Nashville. The Nashville Reparatory Theatre’s recent production surrounds and soaks the audience in Hansberry’s subtle dialogue, creating a rich world in a black box theatre below the main stage in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. The plot’s whole action takes place in the Younger family’s apartment, and most of the truly gut-wrenching moments occur in the ever-tighter microcosm of the family’s living room. The set design of Nashville Rep’s production determines the characters’ behavior, impacting their identity in a way they are unable to control, which is particularly evident in the character of Walter Lee. Thus, the Younger family’s apartment exemplifies how the societal and economic position of black Americans limits their identity. Fortunately, A Raisin in the Sun also provides a productive response to this problem, both through the family’s decision to move as well as the presence of the play in the American theatre canon and on a Nashville stage in 2017.

Sense of place, and by extension the specific set design of this production underpins the conflict from the beginning of Raisin. The patriarch of the Younger family has just died, leaving a large sum of money to his wife Lena (Jackie Welch), who wants to use it to purchase a new house, though his son Walter Lee (Eddie George) disagrees at first about how the money should be spent. The Youngers have lived in the same cramped apartment for many years, all the more reason for the play to take place entirely within its walls. The time spent there—both in the location itself and in the actors’ behaviors within the context of that location—helps to establish the limitations on Walter Lee’s identity. In turn, his final decision in favor of moving creates a satisfying resolution for a production so focused on the physical limitations of the Youngers’ home.

The set design is the first indicator for the audience that there are parts of Walter Lee’s life over which he has no control. “Well, you tell that to my boy tonight when you put him to sleep on the living-room couch,” he says, expounding on his frustration at the lack of a bedroom for his son in the apartment. In Gary C. Hoff’s set design, the makeshift bed on the couch takes center stage on a platform jutting out into the audience, serving as a visual call for the audience to remember the Younger family’s circumstances. Furthermore, instead of showing the room itself, the set includes a door leading outside to the shared bathroom; another reminder of their low socioeconomic status and the difficulties of living in a rundown apartment.

The set design provides a foundation for another visual; the behavior of actors, which reinforces the limitations on Walter Lee’s identity. Former Tennessee Titans football player Eddie George hulks over the other three female main characters, his wide frame bulging out of his clothing as if resisting the domesticity of the apartment. Walter Lee’s character struggles with fragile masculinity, especially because the space of the apartment is so female-centered. Part of the reason for this is that director Rene Copeland seems to place more emphasis on Lena than on her son. In the original 1959 production Sidney Poitier (Walter Lee) placed the focus more on the son than the mother, but the alternating sensitivities in Jackie Welch’s (Lena Younger) delivery of dialogue give the character a larger emotional span than that of George’s gruff Walter Lee. Welch’s expansive acting experience certainly contributes to this result, especially because a much younger Welch played Beneatha in a prior production of Raisin, as she told the audience in a talkback (Nashville Rep’s A Raisin in the Sun, 3/31/17). But most compelling are Lena’s interactions with the set, each effortless and brimming with memories, while Walter Lee appears painfully out of place. Lena rests on the couch, looking at the place where her hardworking husband sat, and delivers dialogue bursting with hidden sorrow; while Walter Lee grows angry at the dinner table, sitting in a chair that seems far too small for him.

Actors’ interactions with the space of the apartment provide additional cues to the reasons behind Walter Lee’s insecurities. Though Beneatha is in college, and Ruth and Lena work, the time the three of them spend onstage recalls the old “a woman’s place is in the home.” This stereotype, through placing the control of the home in the women’s hands, threatens Walter Lee’s masculinity. He can’t control Lena’s money, but he also can’t control what they do possess, which for the most part exists for the sake of domestic tasks. Most prominently, Ruth does many chores in order to take care of her family which all require props which live in the space. She starts the whole show by making eggs and working in the kitchen, then later folds laundry and irons clothes. Though traditionally there is not a lot of power in these tasks, because she interacts with the set more than Walter Lee, the production gives her some of that power back.

But ultimately, Walter Lee and his family can only take back control over their own identities by pushing back against their rundown apartment in one final way: by choosing to move. The decision is a difficult one, not only because of the financial cost, but because the white Neighborhood Association in their new neighborhood has asked them not to move because they are a black family. However, their racially motivated request is denied by Walter Lee, in a dramatic moment near the finale of the play. In Nashville Rep’s production, the interaction of the set design with the limitations on identity comes to a climax when Walter Lee kicks the Neighborhood Association representative out of their apartment, slamming the door on him with a resounding finality. This decision to move heralds a new strength of identity for all of the characters, but especially for Walter Lee in that final moment of agency.

A Raisin in the Sun takes great advantage of its setting on the Nashville stage in 2017, reminding audiences of the present-day local issues which resemble the ones in this play. Gentrification still exists in Nashville, and racial minorities are heavily impacted in the housing market. In the same way that Raisin uses its own dramatic power to resolve the setting’s limitations on identity, its existence in the American theatre canon has brought it to Nashville at the proper time, so that Hansberry’s creative touch can resonate once again.

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