Too much Raisin, just enough Spunk
by Steve Vineberg
A RAISIN IN THE SUN, By Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Jack Hofsiss. Set designed by Michael
McGarty. Lighting by Rui Rita. Costumes by Karen Perry. Musical direction by
Charles Alterman. With Gloria Foster, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Viola Davis,
Kimberly Elise, James Sneed, Dion Graham, Donn Swaby, and Peter Maloney. At the
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, through August 1.
SPUNK: THREE TALES, By Zora Neale Hurston, Adapted by George C. Wolfe. Music by Chic Street Man. Directed by Rob
Ruggiero. Set designed by Michael Schweikardt. Lighting by Jeff Croiter.
Costumes by Laurie Churba. Choreographed by Tanya-Gibson Clark. With Keith
Johnston, Sheyvonne Wright, Lisa Renee Pitts, Dathan B. Williams, Godfrey L.
Simmons Jr., and Dyron Holmes. Presented by Barrington Stage Company at the
Consolati Performing Arts Center, Sheffield, through August 8.
A Raisin in the Sun was one of only three plays Lorraine
Hansberry completed before her death, at 34, in the mid '60s, but it made her
famous: she was the first black woman to see her work produced on Broadway.
A Raisin in the Sun, which dramatizes the tribulations of a black
family, the Youngers, struggling to get out of a Chicago ghetto, ran for more
than a year, was made into a well-known movie with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee,
and gets revived with sufficient regularity that it's achieved the status of a
repertory classic. (Esther Rolle played the pivotal role of Lena in a
television production a few years ago.) And the fact that it's not a very good
play has been overshadowed by its historic importance. But Raisin is
clearly the work of a young and inexperienced writer: the characters speechify,
the action isn't shaped, and the domestic crises -- an unwanted pregnancy,
insurance money unwisely entrusted to a larcenous friend, the attempts of a
community organization to prevent the Youngers from moving into a white
neighborhood -- don't so much evolve organically as pile up like cars in a
What could save Raisin in production is, ironically, its banality. The
characters and their trials are familiar enough that a sensitive reading by a
cast in synch might bring the play together and create a memorable experience
out of the wobbly, overwritten text. That was my hope for Jack Hofsiss's
revival at Williamstown, which gathers three distinguished actors: Ruben
Santiago-Hudson as Walter Lee, an embittered chauffeur who dreams of striking
it rich; Viola Davis as his weary wife, Ruth; and Gloria Foster as Lena, his
widowed mother, a woman of towering spiritual strength who insists (to her
son's exasperation) on retaining the status of head of the family. And for
almost the first hour, as the cast makes its home on Michael McGarty's
excellent set (a seedy apartment sandwiched between an El platform and an alley
descending into the street), it feels as though the show might coalesce,
despite the distinctly disparate styles of these three performers.
Santiago-Hudson, an actor of obvious fiery talent, tries to illuminate his
character by setting off flares around his lines. Foster's acting in the early
scenes is more experiential than skillful. She seems to bring the raw bulk of a
life lived to the stage, and you want to overlook her lack of physical
imagination and her tendency to repeat herself.
Only the supremely gifted Viola Davis finds a rhythm in the play at the outset
and tunes herself to it. Davis had a one-scene role in last year's film Out
of Sight, as Don Cheadle's girlfriend, but she made an indelible
impression: clad in a leopard-skin-print wrapper, her eyes set deep in a
wondrously beautiful face, she inched across the screen like the walking blues.
I hadn't seen her acclaimed performance in August Wilson's Seven
Guitars, but on the strength of that single scene I made a point of
catching her in Everybody's Ruby at the Public Theater last season,
where she played a woman convicted of killing her wealthy politician lover. The
play was dreadful, but she was luminous -- there wasn't a moment in her
performance that wasn't saturated with emotion. I suspect Davis isn't capable
of playing a scene any other way. She brings an enormousness of feeling to her
portrayal of Ruth Younger, without forcing anything. It's a superbly modulated,
movingly intimate piece of acting. In one scene, alone in her living room with
Ruth's eternal pile of ironing, she boogies for her own pleasure to a pop song
on the high-fi, and you get the sense that you just peeked in through Ruth's
But all hope that the Williamstown revival can discover a shape for
Hansberry's hunk of a play disappears as it lumbers into the play's second act
(the second half of act one in this single-intermission production). The pacing
gets worse rather than better, and though Kimberly Elise infuses her
performance as Walter's kid sister Beneatha (a very badly written part) with a
sharp-witted intensity, both Foster and Santiago-Hudson begin to act as if
there weren't a director in sight to rein them in. By act three they're both
way out of control, especially Foster, who applies a slowed-down, ringing
gospel delivery to every one of Lena's speeches. And with the example of real
gospel before us -- in the overwhelming presence, between scenes, of Gina
Coleman, whose canyon-like contralto barrels out of her as she swings her
massive arms -- everything Foster does begins to seem hollow and rigged.
At slightly over half the length of Williamstown's A Raisin in the Sun,
Spunk, at Barrington Stage Company, is vivid and light-handed, an ink
sketch of a play that, in Rob Ruggiero's production, seems to exist only to
pleasure an audience. Another African-American woman writer, Zora Neale
Hurston, provides the starting point for this show, which is an adaptation of
three of her stories, "Sweat," "Story in Harlem Slang," and "The Gilded
Six-Bits." The adapter is the director-playwright George C. Wolfe, and I
confess his name in the credits gave me pause. I found the racial politics
Wolfe grafted onto his two Broadway musicals, Jelly's Last Jam and
Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk, rather appalling, and I was fearful
of what he would do with Hurston, whose work is famously -- some would say
notoriously -- free of politics. Hurston, who emerged during the Harlem
Renaissance era, didn't write about oppression; she wrote folk fables (like her
justly lauded novel Their Eyes Were Watching God) set within
self-contained black communities like the one in Florida where she was raised.
As it happens, to Wolfe's credit, there's only one moment when he imposes his
own vision onto hers: in "The Gilded Six-Bits," where a white shopkeeper
(played by a masked black actor -- a trademark of Wolfe's) makes a gratuitously
condescending comment about his black customers.
Spunk is performed by an ensemble of six who act and sing, playing a
variety of roles and participating in the chorus. The style is readers' theater
-- not my favorite approach to storytelling on the stage. But the narratives
are so richly dramatic that they keep leaping out of the form; at its best, the
show loses entirely the literary self-consciousness that's the bane of this
Ruggiero and the cast are largely responsible for that transformation, which
they accomplish most successfully in the middle story, "Story in Harlem Slang"
-- perhaps partly because there's relatively little plot they need to get
across. All that happens in this episode is that two down-on-their-luck
hipsters in zoot suits, Jelly and Sweet Back, attempt -- and fail -- to pick up
a good-looking woman who might stake them to a little "scrap iron" (cheap
liquor) or a meal. The three principals in this raucous exchange -- Dyron
Holmes as Jelly, Godfrey L. Simmons as "Slang Talk Man," and Lisa Renee Pitts
as the sharp-edged object of their common admiration -- are all terrific.
Pitts's high-heeled no-nonsense walk suggests a cartoon character. And as the
would-be womanizer Jelly, the utterly charming Holmes matches an ebullient
confidence to an animated little boy's face.
Dathan B. Williams sticks pretty much to one note as the sadistic Sikes in
"Sweat," who brings a rattlesnake home to terrify his common-law wife Delia out
of her property so he can move his new girlfriend in. But Pitts's authenticity
of feeling roots the story during the rag-taggle first half; she's Delia, who
has survived Sikes's beatings and his infidelity and his contemptuousness and
has somehow managed to find the will to hold on to something of her own. Once
the snake enters the picture, the events of the story take over and give it the
requisite narrative sweep. Something similar occurs in "The Gilded Six-Bits,"
which focuses on a couple (Pitts and Simmons) whose happiness is almost wrecked
by the wife's fixation on the appearance of wealth in another man, the
honey-tongued proprietor of a combination ice-cream parlor/dance club. Simmons
is especially good in this story (which takes up most of the play's second
act); he makes the emotional shifts in the character wonderfully clear and
grounds the episode in the psychological reality it needs to make the
emblematic action believable.
The two other members of the ensemble, Keith Johnston and Sheyvonne Wright,
provide the music: both sing, and Johnston plays guitar. He has an easy,
likable presence; he might have stepped out of vaudeville. I could have managed
with less of Wright's brass-plated blues style, however -- she's the only
element in the production I found out of step with the low-key style. (Even the
ragtime costume Laurie Churba has designed for her is over the top.) Working in
tandem, Michael Schweikardt's simple set and Jeff Croiter's lighting help
establish that style. The set is a brown wooden frame upstage that contains a
cyclorama on which fanciful backdrops are projected for each story -- a wisp of
gold for the sun in "The Gilded Six-Bits" (the burnished, inner-glowing color
is like something on a Morris Louis canvas); a crowded, magically distorted
skyline for the folk version of Manhattan depicted in "Story in Harlem Slang."
The look of this Spunk is part of the fun of watching it.