What Happens to a Dream Deferred?

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican 14th-20th May 2012)

Angela Mwandia in A Raisin in the Sun photo by Phoenix Players
Angela Mwandia in A Raisin in the Sun photo by Phoenix Players

“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?” These opening lines of a poem by Langston Hughes (1902-1967) are the inspiration and the premise of Lorrain Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

The play portrays the life of black people in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement and their combat against social injustice and racial segregation and addresses issues such as black identity, intergenerational conflict, family value systems and gender roles within the black American community.

Phoenix players placed the play in a Kenyan milieu in a production directed by George Mungai, which I watched on Friday April 27, a day before it closed.

When the play starts, the Younger family (Yanga in this adaptation) is about to receive an insurance payment following the recent death of Mr Younger. However, the essential element in this play is not so much the plot as the internal conflict within each character and rising tension between the characters.

Likarion Wainaina plays Walter Lee Younger the lead male character. The role, played by Sidney Poitier in the first Broadway production in 1959, portrays a young black American man who feels entitled to live beyond his actual circumstances and wonders why he shouldn’t live the affluent life of the people he chauffeurs around in a limousine.

In this adaptation however, Walter Lee is a matatu driver so the racial aspect of a black man chauffeuring around rich white men- a strong theme in the play- is lost here, but Wainaina nonetheless brings forth a Walter Lee that we can easily recognise:  the matatu-driving ‘Eastlander’ whose aspiration for better things in life seems, in his circumstances, at best, impractical and at worst, delusional.

Likarion Wainaina and Alison Nyawira in A Raisin in the Sun photo by Phoenix Players
Likarion Wainaina and Alison Nyawira in A Raisin in the Sun photo by Phoenix Players

His wife, Ruth Yanga (Esther Neema), though overworked, seems to accept her lot in life but is thrilled by the prospect of moving to a bigger house in a better neighbourhood. The relationship between her and Walter Lee is strained but her early-stage pregnancy is revelatory of intimacy between them and this love-hate conflict that Walter Lee feels towards Ruth is heightened by the remarkable chemistry between Neema and Wainaina that makes the tension between them almost tangible, even when they are on opposite sides of the stage.

Angela Mwandia plays Lenah Yanga, the family’s matriarch and Walter Lee’s main antagonist. Last April, she rendered a veritable Mother Superior in the Phoenix production of Agnes of God and her portrayal of Lena in this production was no less convincing. Head of a household that includes her daughter Beneatha (Alison Nyawira), her son Walter, his wife Ruth and their son Travis (the very young Sam Gichira), she runs a tight ship. It is against this pillar of strength, that Walter Lee attempts to assert his role as the head of his family, notwithstanding his pie-in-the-sky dreams and shaky business plans.

Lenah realises that for as long as she remains the head of the house, her son will remain a broken man and so she relents. She puts a down deposit on a house in an up-market part of town, Valley Arcade in this case, gives him the rest of the money and asks him to put aside some money to pay for medical school for his sister and do what he feels is right with the rest of it, as the man of the house. The very next day, his ‘business partner’ Willy, who turns out to be a conman, disappears with all the money.

Like her brother, Beneatha is also a dreamer and idealist but of the intellectual sort. She is more fascinated by her Nigerian suitor, Joseph Asagai (Maina Olwenya) than in the wealthy but academically inadequate George Mapesa (David Opondoe), who in an outburst of anger against ‘university boys’ asks furiously, ‘who the hell is Hercules?’

Sam Gichira and Likarion Wainaina in A Raisin in the Sun photo by Phoenix Players
Sam Gichira and Likarion Wainaina in A Raisin in the Sun photo by Phoenix Players

Beneatha represents not only the black liberation but also the women’s liberation intellectuals of the time- in a sense, a self portrait by the playwright, Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965). Olwenya’s fluid Nigerian accent and easy-going manner made an endearing Asagai, who represents the intellectual class in the late 50s/early 60s Africa, where the agitation for an end to colonialism was in full steam.

With the exception of the minor characters Mrs Johnson (Mama John in this adaptation) played by Njoki Ngumi and Bobo (Bruce Makau) both of whom were caricatured for comic effect and Miss Shah (Darshani Haria) who replaces the role of Mr Lindner, all the rest were well-developed, deeply psychological, three-dimensional characters.

© Anne Manyara 2012

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