My wife, who studied anthropology, told me that starving people reach this point where they no longer want to eat gruel, and now want a meal with spices or just flavored. This is a sign of health, because the person now believes that they will survive and they want more out of life.
“Raisin In The Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry, as performed by the Bridgeport Cabaret Theatre, is the story of people who are starting to refuse to eat gruel. It is the story of a family, a culture, and individuals who will no longer settle for mere existence, who are experiencing the economic or civil version of “sick and tired of being sick and tired”.
The story features a mother/grandmother who grew up as a sharecropper (LaMarr Taylor as “Miss Lena”) , her two children (Walter and Beneatha, played by Jahi Kasssa Taharqa and MayTae Harge, respectively), Walter’s wife Ruth (played by Noelle Ginyard), and Walter and Ruth’s son, Travis (played that night by Abijola “Keeme” Tajudeen). They all live in a cramped Chicago slum together, and there is so little room in the apartment that Travis sleeps on the couch at night. Strolling through as a form of character development are George (Avery Owens) and Mr. Asagi, (played by Garth West) .
All of the family members are shaped by two other unseen characters: Lena’s late husband, who creates dreams at the beginning of the play, and a con man named Willie who could potentially take them away in the end (no spoiler here. You have to go to see the play).
For good or bad, as I watched, I tried to connect with each of these Black characters set in the late 50’s, early ’60’s characters as “familiar” or “not familiar” to me today about 50 years later. Whether that is pompous of me or not remains to be seen, but that’s where I went. Sadly, amazingly, I recognized all of these people, and their downsides, their struggles, and ultimately their faithful determination to see themselves as worthy human beings. Some I understood from the past, and some from the present. It is the contrast of the two which gives the play its meaning in this millennia. Still, all of it is about survival and the meaning of gruel.
I understood the hurt and anger that is Walter, with the world changing, and women’s growth passing him by, who believes he is supposed to be in charge, make the decisions, and have the respect of the family. I understand, but don’t respect, his anger, his drinking, his hanging out, all while dreaming of being more in the world of men, fighting the nearly unbeatable tide of racism out there, only to come home to women who are going somewhere. He wants to be given just a chance to get ahead, and have some worth. For him, not eating gruel anymore means having an easy life and being seen as respectable, just like the White men he sees. The White version of Walter is the formerly middle-class Trump voter .
I recognized the young boy who is born into the world, with no other expectations than the ones he sees, while his peers haven’t learned “the rules” yet, who hasn’t been scarred enough to be disillusioned yet. Young Travis is still innocent and playful, dreaming … yet wondering about a few things around him, protected by his parents to the best of their abilities. Travis has never eaten gruel and can’t yet imagine its existence at this point in his life. He will be the activist of the late 1960’s, the believer that tells his children “Black is beautiful”, and “[says] it loud, he’s Black and Proud!”. Middle aged at Obama’s inauguration, disappointed at the backlash, he is the one now blamed by society for dreaming too much, and thinking he deserved more than gruel, in the current climate.
I recognized women like Ruth, faced with changing culture that now offers a range of decisions, all of them requiring hard work and hard choices, which she is willing to do if men will let her. She is perhaps the strongest of anyone there, the one with little or no cheerleading to call her on, driven only by her internal drive, but gaining daily strength from it. As she overcomes the challenges, she gains experience of her wisdom which can’t be taken away with the “logic” of men and will prove unfathomably strong over time. She has heard stories of gruel, and knows it is not for her, yet has to prove this to others.
I recognized the soon-to-be Angela Davis that is Beneatha, who says “Hell, no, I won’t eat gruel!”, who believes her time has come, who has the intellect to prove it, but at this stage believes it will be easy to live the life she can picture in her mind. She can picture a life of equality under the law, less than no other person, White, Black, male, female, rich or poor, nappy-headed or straight-haired. Life will not be easy for her, if she survives at all. Despite what she believes in her college years, playing “We Shall Overcome” on the guitar won’t be enough. Still, if she makes it, she will become an icon in the feminist/Womanist movement and lay the groundwork for gender studies and the upcoming understanding of “more than binary” sexuality. White liberal women will idolize her, White men will respect her and fear her in equal measure.
Finally, I recognize Lena, the Matriarch of faith, who has eaten gruel, because her awakening was that she simply deserved to live. God told her that — when White society wouldn’t. She reminds me, financially, of my grandfather, who grew up in the Depression and always ate the last pea on his plate out of remembrance of times past. He ate liver or chipped-beef-on -toast or bread and milk for a meal because it was food. Lena and my grandfather shared that sense of having nothing, but my grandfather was told that of course he deserved to exist. He was White, Male, German, and Protestant. While God loved him, he didn’t need to be told because society told him that every day. Lena, on the other hand, would have needed to hear about her worth from something beyond this sphere. When she did, she never gave up. She, like my grandfather, never believed that money and self-worth were the same thing.
Beneatha’s two suitors are also recognizable as pathways to coping: George, as a “buppie” from the 1980’s who believed White culture and capitalism were right, as long he could “pass” for White. He is rich and educated, and does what he should. The Nigerian-born Asagi is the fantasy that gives pride to a nation in exile. He is dignified and gracious, wise and humble. He is regal in ways that George — An American — doesn’t even contemplate.
Which person does our society focus on? The one who never appears on stage — Willie, the con man — is our present culture’s icon for the Black man as represented by the White one. He is the image of opportunity being fed to America’s secular Blacks — the one for whom the lottery, the hustle, or selling drugs are the only opportunities for pride, and “making it”. He is the criminal we can arrest because “he’s only causing harm”. He is the symbol of “Black on Black crime” that Jeff Sessions wants to lock up, while claiming it’s about “safety” or “law and order”.
Which person really runs the American world right now? It’s the minor, and unsuspecting character, Karl Lindner, who offers the family a “legitimate” way to save the family (not like Willie offers) if they simply accept the rules. Of course, the rules are that Blacks are “those people” — yes, they are people, but they don’t belong with “us”. Lindner is at once the most hateful man in the play, and the most pleasant. If you ask him, he’s only doing his job, and making “everyone” happy. He doesn’t swear, he isn’t a criminal, he just “fills out the forms”. Lindner is the Faustian bargain offered to people with no hope — people of all colors, both Walter and the Trump voter (and the Latino gardener in California, or snow-plow driver in the Northeast).
But back to gruel: Gruel is simple sustenance, a step up for people withnothing, who have been told they are nothing. No one who has something, or believes they are something eats it willingly. Each of the characters in “Raisin in the Sun”, have begun to expect more from life, as they should — emotionally, financially, spiritually. They believe, on some level, what God believes — that they can be their best, fullest selves. Our current ruling class is determined to eat all of the “real food”. They believe that the only way they can “have it all” is to make sure others agree to have nothing, and accept gruel as a step up. They are willing to give the scraps from their lives so that we can exist on those. In doing so, they don’t have tofeel bad.
We who are not the ruling class must fight this with every fiber of our being, because our simply being is at stake. We must not believe that they are the only ones who deserve food, education, health, self-esteem, that they are the only ones who exist.
We must believe in ourselves and each other. We must treat each other as though we believe that we are somebody. We must see ourselves as God sees us, and trust in the vision of who we can be. Accepting gruel makes it impossible to become our best selves. The Youngers, in this play, show us ways to be beyond that, and the risks inherent in the choices we think we have. It is a great, yes, classic, play because of that.
The production in Bridgeport featured first class actors . As I waited to see Noel Ginyard after the show, each of the actors walked by and were recognizable vaguely as the people they portrayed, but I had to strain myself to actually see them as their characters — the sign of good acting being that the person, in their role, is as believable as the person off stage. They all were.
I would recommend it to all.