We’ve seen it time and again with Shakespeare films – the effort to reinvigorate a classic through some form of radical alteration (in time, place, or even language). Sometimes these adaptations succeed, sometimes they fail, and sometimes we aren’t quite sure what to make of them.
The latter category is where I would place UpRise Productions’ version of "A Raisin in the Sun" by Lorraine Hansberry, playing now through Aug. 17 at the Vortex.
Directed by New York artist, Laurie Carlos, this production struck me as a postmodern dance piece that uses Hansberry’s script for dialogue – rather than, say, the classic piece of American realism that I was expecting to see.
Without a director’s note or even an inkling of forewarning in the promotional materials, it came as quite a surprise that the actors rarely look at each other, move rhythmically, methodically, and entirely unnaturally around the stage, and use fluid gestures to enact emotions rather than relying on more traditional mimetic representation.
When performances emphatically avoid realistic modes of representation, it’s difficult to make qualitative assertions about the acting. Nevertheless, Jolia Jones stands out as the family matriarch (Lena), and Zell Miller III delivers a frenetic performance as Walter.
Eventually, the actors’ strange movements cease to feel alienating and simply became "normal," which shifts the focus to Hansberry’s language. Not being spoken by "real" characters, Hansberry’s dialogue becomes unencumbered by emotional attachment, and we can hear the philosophy and rhetoric of her arguments about race and familial relationships in America.
We don’t achieve the same kind of emotional connections with the characters as we might in a realistic performance, but this allows for a more thoughtful reflection on the relevance of the play more than fifty years after its debut.
When "A Raisin in the Sun" premiered, it was the first play written by an African American woman to receive a Broadway production. Chronicling the struggles of a poor black family in Chicago, the play was nominated for numerous awards and was later turned into a film starring Sidney Poitier.
The resonance of this production is in how the play feels just as relevant with an African American president in office. Surfaces may have changed in the half a century since it was written, but the deep-rooted racial prejudice in America is still alive and insidiously well.
"A Raisin in the Sun" continues 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 17. www.vortexrep.org