As things warm up for the 1961 Smackdown -- July 30, mark your calendars -- it's becoming clear that the Class of 1961 was of an especially rich vintage. Just check out that list of nominees, the omissions mentioned by Canadian Ken, and then realize that the Class of 1961 also included screen-scorching work by...
click pics for neat linksSomehow A Raisin in the Sun has gotten stuck with a strange reputation: a respectable, inoffensive, worthwhile, middle-brow piece of American theatre history which -- it seems to inevitably follow -- holds little interest or import for contemporary audiences. Hansberry's play shares this oddly dismissive reputation with a handful of other great plays on the standard high-school drama curriculum (Death of a Salesman and Our Town come to mind). And its a rep to which StinkyLulu has at times lazily deferred... But oh oh oh... All it takes is a top-notch production to remind even lazy snarksters like Lulu to realize how wrong that POV is... And, luckily, the performances by Ruby Dee and Diana Sands are captured on celluloid to provide a permanent reminder of the emotional complexities and intellectual intricacies of Hansberry's legendary play.
The story centers on the Youngers, an African American family in Chicago at midcentury, and captures the moment in this family's history when the Youngers are poised to move from being poor as country dirt to being solidly, if modestly, middle class. The catalyst for this transition is a bequest arriving via life insurance from the family's deceased patriarch, and the narrative presents the events that punctuate the battle between surviving matriarch Lena Younger (Claudia McNeil) and her son Walter (Sidney Poitier) over how best to invest in the family's future. Over three acts, this conflict plays out with an artful complexity that dramatic writing (film, tv, theatre) just doesn't try much anymore. (While skilled, Poitier's and McNeil's performances are exhaustingly tense, offering every hue of a single color, and come perilously close to making this story's journey almost too much.) But of course, for StinkyLulu, the actresses at the edges -- Ruby Dee and Diana Sands -- animate the emotional richness of this piece. Dee plays Ruth Younger, John's very tired wife, and Sands plays Beneatha, his gifted younger sister. Each has her own stake in the family's fortunes, yet -- and this is what Lulu so admires this play for -- each has her own identity, her own life, her own self and that too finds itself at a dramatic crossroads.
Ruby Dee's Ruth is a woman freshly aware of her womanhood, caught wondering what she is if she's no longer young but not yet old. What's more: no one's noticing. Lonely in a 3-room apartment crowded with people, Dee offers Ruth's struggle to the audience through her body. (It must have been something to see on stage.) Radiantly happy in one scene, emotionally flattened the next, Dee's vocal precision modulates a coherence even as her teeny body radiates every mood's swing. Ruby Dee's performance is a subtle force of reckoning, stronger and sexier here than even Moreno. (That Dee didn't score even a nomination conveys much about the time...)
Diana Sands, on the other hand, plays a chattering ditzball who just happens to be a genius. Sands, equipped with a cutie pie's voice and an ingenue's face, channels Beneatha's formidable intellect through a teenybopper's exuberance. The way she bounces every which way, spouting half-understood ideas, toying with suitors -- it'd be easy to misinterpret Beneatha as a flake, but Sands somehow hooks into the character's heady combination of imagination and intelligence to convey that Beneatha's a formidable woman in the making. (Just watch Sands "get it" during the scene with the guy from the homeowner's association.) Sands' Beneatha yet stands as an extraordinary portrait of young black womanhood, one that still has few equals. Diana Sands' performance, too, is a poignant reminder of the actress' own truncated career. (Really -- while StinkyLulu's in love with Carroll's Claudine -- to think of Sands -- who was originally cast -- in the role? Wow.)
It's a brainsprainer that neither of these actresses got a nomination from Oscar. For these or any other roles. (To be fair, Dee's work here was awarded by the National Board of Review, and her longevity has garnered numerous other accolades.)
But if you too, lovely reader, have occasionally succumbed to the notion that A Raisin in the Sun doesn't hold powerful contemporary dramatic interest, (re)screen this version or look for the television adaptation of the celebrated recent Broadway production sometime next year. Allow yourself to be surprised...