Crying mercy, and doing good7/13/2016
“Raisin In the Sun” has a rollercoaster of a second act, so gasp-inducing that Lorraine Hansberry’s play became Broadway’s hottest ticket of 1959, and after that, a star-making film for Sidney Poitier. For the production from Pyramid Theatre, Des Moines’ first African-American company, Director Tiffany Johnson found a way to the worst of the drops.
At that point Walter Younger, the Poitier role, has been scammed out of his greatest score ever. He’s desperate enough to humiliate himself — along with wife, son, sister and mother. Earlier the family made a down payment on a house in a white enclave only to have a “neighborhood association” offer to purchase the property from them. Now Walter has decided to take the racists’ buyout. In despair, he falls on his knees, crying on “Massa” for mercy.
The moment, among other things, is another keeper for the Aaron Smith scrapbook. Playing Walter, this local treasure again shows us the depth of feeling he can get into so little as a jerk of his head. Besides that, the setup demonstrates Johnson’s eye for the dynamics of the stage. She put Smith down stage right, while his sister and mother hung back to either side, as if they held two ends of a net that might yet catch him. At stage left, back over the kitchen sink, his wife wept, an angel who suffered with the man.
The scene also brought home how designer Wayne Kischer had kept the set shabby, combining faded upholstery and scuffed aluminum. The brightest things in the place were the characters, despite their agony — all but one were women. “Raisin,” though celebrated as a drama of the African-American predicament, matters, too, as feminist story. Mother, wife and sister each embody some challenge for Hansberry’s gender, from forging a career to maintaining self-respect.
In this production, Davida Williams, as Walter’s wife Ruth, expressed herself with deceptive quiet. Just meeting her sister-in-law’s eyes, checking her looks with a younger, prettier woman, Williams got across how much she cared for her troubled husband. As the sister, Kamilla Camp-Bey gets a lot out her lithe body, both in the happiness of her dancing and in the cold shoulder she gives a pompous date. As for Wanda Everage, as Mama Lena, she fell victim to the lone technical glitch. When she slapped her daughter, there was no sound effect. But then, her mouth a grim line, Mama began to berate her girl — and that brought the thunder.
More than that, anyone who glances at the Playbill will see that Everage might be the most honored black women in Iowa. She’s won a bushel of awards in both education and government. With a background like that, and at a troubled time for American race relations like this, her performance embodies the good that Pyramid could do.
Overheard In The Lobby: Iowa Shakespeare Experience has new shows starting, and its founder, Lorenzo Sandoval, has won special recognition from Cambridge University for a his parody of “Romeo & Juliet.” CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.