Raisin' the Roof!

Publication Date: Friday Jul 31, 1998

Raisin' the Roof!

TheatreWorks stages 25th anniversary production of "Raisin"

by Robyn Israel

How long does it take to stage a lavish musical jam-packed with jazz and blues, exciting dance numbers and drama that covers the entire spectrum of human emotion?

Ten years, to be exact.

That's how long it took for "Raisin," TheatreWorks' newest production, to evolve from dream status to center stage reality. The play, based on Lorraine Hansberry's heartwarming family drama, "A Raisin in the Sun," had long been a figment in the imagination of Robert Kelley, TheatreWorks' artistic director.

Fiendishly difficult to produce, he patiently waited for the right creative leadership to bring the musical drama to life. Last season, all the pieces began to fall into place, with Anthony J. Haney, Kelley's dream director, signing on, along with choreographer Danny Duncan and musical director Dianthe "Dee" Spencer. Securing a talented, triple threat cast that could sing, dance and act finally completed Kelley's artistic vision.

"I think once people see it, they'll realize it's a real neglected treasure of the American theater," said Kelley of the play which, given its lofty logistics and demanding roles, is staged far less frequently than other musicals.

Set in 1953 in Southside Chicago, "Raisin" revolves around a working class black family aspiring to a better life after the passing of their father. Hope is sparked by the arrival of a $10,000 life insurance check, but it also precipitates a conflict between mother and son. Walter Lee Younger Jr. wants to use the money to open a liquor business. For Mama Lena, however, the windfall means the opportunity to move out of the slums and finance daughter Beneatha's medical school education.

"This isn't just about black people. It's about the spirit of any family," said Barbara Roberts, who plays Mama Lena. "People will see themselves. (It's about a) generation gap, people holding steadfast to their dreams and working to achieve them, working through conflicts within the family."

Chosen by Time magazine as one of the most influential pieces of theater and literature, "A Raisin in the Sun" was a landmark play, offering the first portrayal of blacks as a working class, family unit. It was labeled semi-autobiographical, since it was widely assumed that the character of Beneatha was modeled after Hansberry, whose family did move to an integrated, predominantly white neighborhood.

In 1973, Robert Nemiroff (Hansberry's husband) and Charlotte Zaltzberg adapted the drama into a musical, with music by Judd Woldin and lyrics by Robert Brittan. It took Broadway by storm, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical, running three years, and then followed with a record-breaking national tour and a Grammy for Best Musical Album.

When Haney was asked five years ago to direct "Raisin," he wasn't interested in the project. This time, however, he enthusiastically jumped at the opportunity to present an insightful portrayal of one black man's valiant struggle to buy into the American Dream. In his view, there has been so much negative press in recent years about black men as killers and gang members, and so little mention of those who take care of their families.

"Twenty-five percent of black men under 30 are in jail or in the prison system, under parole" Haney explained. "I want to bring a glimpse of why that statistic might exist."

Interestingly, Clinton Derricks-Carroll, who plays aspiring entrepreneur Walter Lee, also didn't care for the play originally. Many of his fellow African-American male actors frowned upon the piece, considering it outdated. A thorough reading of the story and the opportunity to work with Haney, however, made the L.A.-based actor reconsider the role.

"I don't want people to see that he just bumbles and fumbles," he said of his character. "There's more to him. This guy has a dream and wants to do better than his father. He's intelligent. He's not a fool. He just doesn't have the money. He knows it takes money to fulfill any dream."

Unlike "A Raisin in the Sun," which was set entirely in the family's one-bedroom apartment, "Raisin" transports the audience into Walter's Chicago haunts. It is a seductive, energetic world of clubs and night life, a city that was the hub of jazz in the 1950s. Backed by a tight eight-piece jazz ensemble band, the music becomes a character in itself, Haney said. Like the 1973 text, the jazz, gospel and blues tunes remain true to the musical's roots, although both script and music have been updated for the 1990s.

Cultural images inserted throughout the play will also allow the audience to bridge the 45-year gap, as will Haney's cinematic-like direction. Tailored to suit today's shorter attention spans, the play is jammed with constant movement and pulsating dance numbers. From the opening jazz ballet to a rhythmic African dance, people will find it hard to sit still in their seats.

"I wanted the piece to be true, vibrant and meaningful to people in 1998," said Haney. "It's not a parlor piece. The issues haven't changed that much. There's still poverty, substance abuse, overcrowded conditions, hopelessness, inability to focus a dream."

Such dark imagery helped Haney set the tone for the play's design, as did his interpretation of a 1952 "Ebony" article by Richard Wright, one of the foremost black writers of the time. Entitled "The Shame of Chicago," it described the city's abhorrent poverty, where no social services existed and Cadillacs sat parked on top of piles of garbage.

The set design evokes a world that's closing in on Walter; it is skewed and contorted, reflecting his exclusion from America's post-war prosperity. Although it perfectly captures his claustrophobic feelings, the set is not, however, bleak or oppressive. Infused with cubist images and musical metaphors, there is poetic beauty unveiled on this stage. And valuable lessons about life still shine through in this 45-year-old story.

"It has a lot to do with family values," said Derricks-Carroll. "It's not just a business that makes you a man. He (Walter Lee) learns that lesson. It's not just about money. You need to teach children how to respect, love other people. That's why this piece rings true in today's society. I think we've lost those values in our country. We worship money and I think it will be our downfall."

What: TheatreWorks presents "Raisin"

When: Now through Aug. 23

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View

How much: Tickets are $19-$35

Information: Call 903-6000 

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