‘Raisin’ and Falling

Every now and then you witness a small moment that is actually a big moment. Maybe it alerts you to something surprising that’s going on, or maybe it illustrates what you already know but in a new way, one that can’t be dodged or avoided.

It happened to me the other day at a play, a press preview of the Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansbury’s “Raisin in the Sun.” I love this play. I’ve seen it several times, but I hadn’t seen it in years when I settled into my seat.

It has gotten more attention than most shows, mostly because it features the Broadway debut of rap mogul P. Diddy, the former Puff Daddy, who apparently has decided to go by his birth name, Sean Combs. That’s how he’s listed in the playbill.

The play was wonderful. I urge you to go. It’s an important piece of work, and I left moved and excited. I hadn’t realized when I first saw it, decades ago, and saw the movie, also decades ago, that “Raisin” was a landmark play. But it is. It captures with wit and heart a great moment in time. It tells of a black family living on the cusp of cultural liberation in 1950s America. We see them face questions of daily life—what is it to be a man, what is familial loyalty?—as they wrestle with great cultural questions. Shall we, as black Americans, assimilate and become like white Americans? Can we turn back to our African roots to find the truth of our people? Does the older generation have a clue what kind of changes are sweeping the young, or are they too busy surviving to feel the winds of change? Are they in the habit of second-class citizenship?

These ideas were new then. It was all untried. Young people would do, and in time history itself would decide if they’d done right.

The family whose story is told is an intact nuclear family. It is clear they are not special because they are intact and functioning—they’re average, like everyone else. Everyone works hard—cleaning woman, chauffer—and everyone has dreams. Phylicia Rashad as the mother is transcendent. She is going to make you cry. She’s a great actress, and I didn’t know it. I thought she was just a persona with a particular kind of dignity, but she is an artist.

Audra McDonald as a young woman married to a ne’er-do-well son is equally brilliant. Sean Combs on the other hand is not a person of artistic talent. The problem is not that he acts like a high school sophomore, though he does—he registers surprise by bulging his eyes and making an O with his mouth. It’s that the thing for which he has become famous—strutting and rapping with a jaded slack-jawed look—is not a facet of his talent but the whole of it. When he sings a snatch of song you realize, Oh my God, he can’t even sing. I thought rappers could sing but choose not to. Who knew?

But here’s a funny thing: there’s something moving in it when you realize that he made it as a star in America through sheer will, through a bulldozer’s determination. That also is something you get from God, and he got a lot. It took guts for him to do Broadway and bring new people into the theater for the first time, so I suspect he’ll get a pass from the critics. This play is going to be a hit because he’s in it. (At the curtain call he gallantly kissed Ms. Rashad and then Ms. McDonald—and Ms. McDonald got this look on her face that said, “Don’t gallantly bend to kiss my little cheek when I just carried your sorry ass for three hours.”)

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I was so moved by the show in part because the audience was full of people who were not your basic Broadway theatergoing types. They had come for P. Diddy and found themselves enthralled by a play. They were so responsive that in a scene where a mother slaps her daughter the whole audience went “Oh!” So did I. When the character based on Lorraine Hansbury breaks out in a tribal dance we didn’t just laugh with delight, we hooted and hollered. The audience was alive. It was so moving and got me kind of choked. I thought, Maybe this is like what it was like when Shakespeare wrote, “You tell him, Romeo—Juliet no, don’t!”

But I must tell you of the small moment that was actually a big moment. (There’s a possible spoiler coming up, so if you don’t know the story and mean to see the play, stop here.) An important moment in the plot is when a character announces she is pregnant, and considering having an abortion. In fact, she tells her mother-in-law, she’s already put $5 down with the local abortionist. It is a dramatic moment. And you know as you watch it that when this play came out in 1960 it was received by the audience as a painful moment—a cry of pain from a woman who’s tired of hoping that life will turn out well.

But this is the thing: Our audience didn’t know that. They didn’t understand it was tragic. They heard the young woman say she was about to end the life of her child, and they applauded. Some of them cheered. It was stunning. The reaction seemed to startle the actors on stage, and shake their concentration. I was startled. I turned to my friend. “We have just witnessed a terrible cultural moment,” I said. “Don’t I know it,” he responded.

And I can’t tell you how much that moment hurt. To know that the members of our audience didn’t know that the taking of a baby’s life is tragic—that the taking of your own baby’s life is beyond tragic, is almost operatic in its wailing woe.

But our audience didn’t know. They reacted as if abortion were a political question. They thought that the fact that the young woman was considering abortion was a sign of liberation. They thought this cry of pain was in fact a moment of self-actualizing growth.

Afterwards, thinking about it, I said to my friend, “When that play opened that plot point was understood—they knew it was tragic. And that was only what, 40 years ago.” He said, “They would have known it was tragic even 25 years ago.”

And it gave me a shiver because I knew it was true.

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Lorraine Hansbury died in the mid-1960s when she was only 35 years old. She didn’t know how things would turn out. She didn’t know that a poor family that is also a nuclear family would seem exceptional, that a young black intellectual could indeed become a person of substance and respect, a doctor, and that this, 35 years later, would not seem unusual. That the struggle for racial equality would also be a long one, with many twists and turns.

She would be surprised perhaps by how some of the dramatic themes she introduced played out. The whole play is about moral choices—taking chances to make things better. She had a moral mind. She thought the great question of her time was whether the different races in America could learn to treat each other with justice and grace. I can’t imagine she’d guess that members of an eager audience in the year 2004 would have become such moral dullards that we wouldn’t understand something as basic as an abortion, and what it is. If she were alive now I wonder if she would be surprised, or shocked, that that moment no longer worked as a dramatic plot point because the audience had changed so much in its understanding of the basics.

So much progress followed the 1960s, in so many ways, but applauding abortion isn’t progress. It’s ugly. And I’m writing this with an odd little hope. That you might go see this great play, and when the moment comes that the young woman announces she might end the life of the child she is carrying, that you would sit quietly and think about what that moment means. And if anyone cheers or hoots or hollers, give them a look. Let them see your silence. Lead with it. Help the people around you realize: Something big is being spoken of here. And we know what it is. And it is nothing good.