WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The moment finally arrives — and you just knew it was coming — when Robert O’Hara burns a hole right through “A Raisin in the Sun.” It occurs well into the second half of O’Hara’s always absorbing revival of this watershed play, which opened Saturday on the Main Stage of the Williamstown Theater Festival with a cast that includes a magnificent S. Epatha Merkerson.
This act of conflagration is made up of the most basic theatrical elements: a drum roll, a spotlight and a single actor. In the role of Walter Lee Younger, an African-American chauffeur from the South Side of Chicago who has just seen his hopes of self-advancement shattered once again, Francois Battiste is speaking unaltered lines from Lorraine Hansberry’s script.
But as the current rebel yell of a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” on Broadway attests, familiar words from the past can take on unsettling new aspects through a simple shift of perspective. In this case, a speech — about the ugly necessity for black people to debase themselves in a white man’s world — that is usually spoken to the other characters onstage is hurled like a fireball into the audience.
It was a Saturday matinee in Williamstown when I saw the show, and that audience was mostly white and on the far side of middle age. When Walter says he’s “gonna put on a show for the man, just what he wants to see,” he pulls a program — easily identifiable as that for the very show in which he appears — out of his pants.
In other words, we aren’t just in Chicago in the late 1950s. We are also in 21st-century America, where a black actor is performing, for the entertainment of white theatergoers, one man’s rage with the exaggerated gestures of a vaudeville show.
“Yes, I’m talking to you,” Battiste’s Walter seems to be saying as he stares down the house, “and can you honestly tell me things have changed much during the past six decades?”
When it was announced that O’Hara would be directing Hansberry’s epochal 1959 drama, I braced myself for a head-on collision. As both a playwright (“Barbecue,” “Bootycandy”) and a director (Jeremy O. Harris’ sensational “Slave Play”), O’Hara specializes in confrontational, tradition-shredding work.
Hansberry’s “Raisin,” while radically daring in the Eisenhower era for putting a tale of contemporary black characters on Broadway, is conventional almost to a fault in its dramaturgy. It has been revived on Broadway twice in this century, with Sean Combs (in 2004) and Denzel Washington (2014) as Walter in solid, naturalistic productions, both directed by Kenny Leon. Surely, O’Hara wouldn’t be satisfied with letting a worthy old war horse follow its usual, dramatically satisfying course.
Yet, for the most part, this “Raisin” doesn’t dilute the old-fashioned strengths of the original, or interfere with the careful unfolding of its story about a Chicago family’s bid to move from a tenement apartment to a house in a white neighborhood. O’Hara (who wrote his own sequel to the play, the 2010 “The Etiquette of Vigilance”) clearly respects the achievement of “Raisin.”
In program notes, he writes about Hansberry’s prescience in exploring divisive topics that remain of vital relevance: racial assimilation, African heritage, the changing role of women, self-sabotage within African-American communities and the uneasy balance of power among the sexes and generations within the extended black family. This production is devised, above all, to make us listen with new intent to what Hansberry was saying.
Such an aim is in part realized, paradoxically, by rushing and overlapping much of the dialogue. In the frenzy and frustration that come from five individuals sharing a cramped and shabby apartment (rendered with claustrophobic decrepitude in Clint Ramos’ set, impeccably lighted by Alex Jainchill), the members of the Younger family often talk right over one another.
But when a single voice asserts itself, it resonates all the more clearly. That’s especially true when the speaker is Battiste or Merkerson, who plays Walter’s widowed mother, Lena. The play’s plot hinges on a battle of wills between these characters, over what to do with the $10,000 from a life insurance policy (taken out by Walter Lee Sr.) that has finally come into the Youngers’ hands.
In many productions of “Raisin,” the standoff between mother and son translates into a battle over which character will dominate the performance. In its 1959 debut (and in the 1961 film), it was Sidney Poitier’s intense, smoldering Walter. In the 2004 Broadway version, it was Phylicia Rashad’s formidable and folksy Lena.
Battiste and Merkerson, however, are beautifully matched, with a crackling trans-generational chemistry that allows neither mother nor son the last word. Wearing the flashy, sporty clothes of a barroom bantam (Alice Tavener did the costumes), Battiste finds the cancerous, painful insecurity within Walter’s strutting exhibitionism. He always seems on the cusp of both explosion and implosion.
Merkerson, a two-time Tony nominee and one of the finest American actresses working today, gives us not only Lena’s hard-won centeredness and conviction, but also the doubts, born of churning and changing times, now nibbling at her certainty. It’s a nigh-perfect, in-the-moment performance that makes this play credible even in scenes of mechanical contrivance.
The rest of the cast — which also includes a buoyant Nikiya Mathis as Walter’s politically minded sister, Beneatha, the excellent Joshua Echebiri as her Nigerian suitor and a penetratingly officious Joe Goldammer as the sole white character — isn’t all on the same level. Making Walter’s wife, Ruth (Mandi Masden), look like a meticulously groomed fashion model was a mistake, though her hunger to escape the squalor she’s living in feels undeniable and palpable.
You should know that O’Hara employs more than one interpolation in this production. The late Younger shows up as a silent, brooding ghost, rather like Hamlet’s father. And the production includes a blunt visual postscript about the future the Youngers can expect when (spoiler!) they move into their new home.
These additions, unlike Walter’s fourth-wall-breaking moment, feel superfluous, belaboring what could have been implicit in the acting. For me, the show’s most truly shocking scene comes when Lena finally erupts, in raging sorrow, at her beloved, much-indulged son. She acquires a pure physical strength here that bespeaks a hard, long lifetime of patience and stoicism.
Her vision of a world in which decades of sacrifices have been ruthlessly stripped of meaning may be only temporary. But as Merkerson defines it, Lena’s anguish for a life denied her sets off seismic tremors that make a 60-year-old play feel devastatingly of the present.
‘A Raisin in the Sun’
-- Through July 13 at the Williamstown Theater Festival Main Stage, Williamstown, Mass., wtfestival.org
-- Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes