WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. The Williamstown Theatre Festival has opened its 2019 season with a classic drama on the main stage and a world premiere on the smaller Nikos Stage. Uniting the two plays is the theme of racism. At this time in our history when it’s clear that racism is not a thing of the past, it’s very rewarding to experience theater that touches your heart and conscience.
Both “A Raisin in the Sun,” which takes place in the early 1950s and “A Human Being, Of a Sort” which is set 50 years earlier, shows how people suffer in a society that accepts racism as a casual and accepted fact of life. Of the two plays, “A Raisin in the Sun” is the far better experience. It’s revealing to see how well the play holds up as a drama, since it was first produced in 1959. With a running time of almost three hours, it is clear that the work has moments – like a visit from a busybody neighbor that adds little -to the play.
WTF has pulled together an impeccable cast that captures with pain and joy, the lives of hardworking people searching for dignity while surviving harsh living conditions in urban Chicago. And, for most of the production the cast makes you understand how enlightening it must have been for white audiences in 1959 to see a black family that shared the values and struggles that the white community considered their own. The characters are so well written that you hardly realize this is a revolutionary work that touched hearts and changed minds with its subtle approach of showing the family of disenfranchised blacks as real people.
When director Robert O’Hara permits his cast the honor of creating a sometimes flawed family that protects each other in order to both survive and grow, the production is brilliant. However, technical support for the show, usually a strength of Williamstown, mars the production. A disturbing set design by Clint Ramos shrinks the playing space and the apartment’s neglectful disarray denies the Younger family the dignity that they deserve.
S. Epatha Merkerson is a marvel as she breaks the stereotype of the key role of Mama, who is usually played as soft, nurturing and almost passive. Merkelson (best known for her work as Lt. Van Buren on “Law and Order”) creates a Mama who is strong and independent without losing the woman’s dedication to the well-being of her family. It’s an inspiring portrait of a mother everyone craves.
However, when director O’Hara tries to break tradition, the results are more jarring. Midway through the second act he has the character of the older son, Walter Lee Younger, deliver his long poignant monologue about the family putting on a show for the white community as if it were a lecture. The gifted actor Francois Battiste stands at the edge of the stage, the rest of the family lined up behind him, to make an angry commentary about the humiliation that accompanies racism. Even though Battiste is magnetic in the moment, it changes the tone of the story and the production becomes heavy-handed.
Eliminating all subtlety, the director adds a visual statement at play’s end that is jarring, in-your-face, and totally out of context with playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s vision of the work. It’s startling and memorable, but if it’s needed to make the point that racism exists in America, a group of 10 fine actors wasted the three hours of excellent work that came before it.
The work on the smaller Nikos Stage is less satisfying in every way. Even for a world premiere, which by definition implies it is not a finished product, “A Human Being, Of a Sort” is a mess.
It has a phenomenal premise. A man on a work release program is put in charge of a pygmy who is caged and put on display along with exotic animals at the zoo. The man, Smokey, is charged with seeing that a man held captive in a cell behaves or he himself will be returned to a cell. As Smokey befriends Ota Benga, the moral dilemma of one man’s freedom being dependent on another man’s imprisonment should be a hurtful, moral dilemma. Sadly, on the Nikos stage it’s unaffecting.
Adding possible dimension to the story is that Smokey is jailed for three years for stealing apples, while the white man who instigated the crime was released without penalty. This black victim of selective justice is put in charge of another black man who has probably been kidnapped and brought to the zoo against his will. Both men exist for the amusement of a white society who regard people with black skin as non-human.
Despite the intriguing premise, playwright Jonathan Pine and director Whitney White fail to focus the all-over-the-place plot. However, the cast does its best with the material. Andre Braugher (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Homicide: Life on the Streets”) is a powerful, magnetic presence as Smokey. Antonio Michael Woodward is both clever and vulnerable as the Pygmy Ota Benga and Frank Wood is an imperious Hornady, the man in charge of the zoo.
But all is for naught. This might be the longest two hours you will spend in the theater this summer.
“A Raisin in the Sun” plays the main stage at Williamstown through July 13, “A Human Being, of a Sort” through July 7. For tickets and schedule information call 413-458-3253 or go to wtfestival.org
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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