KPBS AIRDATE: September 24, 2004
Two potent plays from earlier times resonate strongly with our own. “A Raisin in the Sun” was a groundbreaker in 1959, when it dramatized the racism and housing discrimination leveled at a working-class African American family in Chicago. Lee Blessing’s “Two Rooms,” which was commissioned by the La Jolla Playhouse in 1988, was inspired by the Beirut hostage crisis, when terrorists held American citizens captive. Both stories could be ripped from today’s headlines. And both plays are getting gripping productions on local stages.
When she wrote “A Raisin in the Sun,” at age 29, Lorraine Hansberry became the youngest American playwright, the fifth woman and the only African American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. Tragically, she died of cancer only six years later, in 1965… at age 34. But she was way ahead of her time, confronting issues like Civil Rights and abortion, as well as personal pride and family legacy.
The local production wisely teams the new Ion Theatre with Common Ground Theatre and the Council for Fair Housing of San Diego. The result is dazzling. This realistic, kitchen-sink drama features complex, multi-faceted, flesh-and-blood characters, marvelously inhabited by a stellar cast, under the assured direction of Claudio Raygoza. Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson is the proud, manipulative, compassionate matriarch in a family teeming with dreams, each one imagining a different use for the $10,000 of insurance money coming their way after the father’s death. Monique Gaffney is an electric presence as the budding young activist and feminist who wants to finance her medical education so she can change the world. As her brother, Shaun T. Evans is superb as he reaches for the American Dream, loses his footing and ultimately becomes a man. P. Shekinah Perkins is rock-solid as his long-suffering wife. The play is a great American classic, and it should be seen by anyone who cares about history, theater, diversity or equality.
History repeats itself in Lee Blessing’s “Two Rooms” as well. Though it’s set in the 1980s, hostage-taking, prisoner abuse and even beheadings are, unfortunately, all-too-current events. The faces or nationalities of the terrorists may change, but their motives and methods have not. This intense drama, staged by Stone Soup Theatre, shows us not only what goes through the captive’s mind, but what his waiting wife endures, as she’s pulled in opposite directions by a reporter who wants her to speak out and a government functionary who urges her to keep silent. It’s a perfectly spare, compelling production, with forceful direction by Therese Schneck and outstanding performances by Paul Morgavo, Rebecca Johannsen, Landon Vaughn and Julie Sachs.
These two pungent plays make the political personal. And that’s the very best way for theater to inform and inspire.
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.