The Price of Family

Raisin_9

Upper row from L to R: Faushia R. Weeden, David Terrell Green, and Olivia Howard. Lower row from L to R: Karen S. Fox and Brodhi McClymont

A poor family in Chicago’s South Side gains a windfall of $10,000.  Amidst thoughts of dreams granted and a happier life, the money serves to deepen cracks in an already fractured unit and prove that the love of money is the root of all evil.  But the love of family still has the power to conquer all.  This is A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry and it is playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Hansberry’s script has its ups and downs.  It introduces powerful themes of family, racism, poverty, generational changes, personal identity, perseverance, hope, and self-respect, but also has some structural weaknesses.  The first act introduces several storylines for the show, but moves terribly slowly and doesn’t provide adequate build for the stories.  By the second act, the primary story of the money gains center stage, a potentially interesting subplot about a surprise, possibly unwanted, pregnancy is all, but forgotten, and a story about a young woman seeking her own identity gets a bit of short shrift.  On the other hand, the second act does provide some incredibly strong monologues and conversational moments that are a treasure trove for performers.

Tyrone Beasley’s direction is quite effective.  This show is driven solely by dialogue which can become quite dry, if not handled just right.  Beasley handles it well by having his actors make natural movements that animate the, often lengthy, conversations.  He understands the emotional beats and his actors always hit those moments subtly and organically.  He’s coached his actors to performances ranging from solid to deeply adept and I tip my hat to his superior guidance of the debuting Karen S. Fox.  That being said, I also thought the show could have benefited from a brisker pace.

Good supporting performances are given by Faushia R. Weeden who projects a spiritual weariness as Ruth Younger as she goes through the motions of life with a crumbling marriage and a hopeless future until the promise of a new home in a better neighborhood relights her candle.  Brodhi McClymont has a real naturalness for this work and provides some lighthearted moments as Travis Younger.  Christopher Scott provides a suitably subtle, polite, and slimy performance as a racist trying to engineer a buyout of the Younger’s new home in Clybourne Park so “those people” won’t move in.

David Terrell Green gives a gripping performance in his Playhouse debut as Walter Lee Younger.  At his core, Walter Lee is a good man.  He wants nothing more than to provide the best, possible life for his family, but has been so beaten down by life that he copes with his perceived failures with alcohol and sometimes takes reckless gambles in an attempt to provide that better life.  Green is dead on target with Walter Lee’s brokenness, but still shows that inner decency and drive to do better for his family.  He really sizzles in the second act when he makes an awful mistake in attempting to grab the brass ring and shows the depths of his love for his family with a performance demonstrating the utter humiliation he’s willing to undergo to rectify that error.

Karen S. Fox really dove into the deep end as she makes her acting debut with the heavy role of the Younger matriarch, Lena.  For someone who’s never performed before, Fox did an exceptional job.  She portrayed a good, Southern woman with strong faith in God and desperately fighting to hold her family together as it falls apart.  She hits the emotional beats well, reaching just the right level of anger when the bulk of her money is misused and being a bulwark for her son as she understands the impact of the blows life has dealt him.  Fox does need to make some minor fixes in volume, projection, and not upstaging herself.

Steven Williams has designed a dilapidated apartment whose spaces between the boards help to communicate the poverty in which the Youngers live.  Tim Vallier has composed a haunting score for the show which is sure to stir your heart.  Lindsay Pape’s costumes well display the social status of the various characters from the cheaper quality clothes of the Youngers to the more elegant wear of the wealthier Karl Lindner and the more educated Joseph Asagai and George Murchison.

This preview night performance did have some difficulties.  Pacing was quite slow.  Pickups for internal and regular cues needed to be much, much quicker.  Energy was sorely lacking for stretches, but when it was there, the dialogue sparkled and popped.  There was also an x factor missing from the performance.  Actors know that feeling.  It’s that magical something that causes the show to take on the fullness of its own life and it is an intangible.  It’s either there or it isn’t.  When it’s not there, the show feels like a rehearsal.  When it’s there, that’s when the show reaches maximum potential.

At the end, this is a story about family.  Its highs and lows.  Its joys and trials.  Its hopes and dreams.  A night with the Youngers just may give you a new perspective on life.

A Raisin in the Sun plays at the Omaha Playhouse through Feb 9.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $24 ($16 for students) and vary by performance.  Tickets can be obtained at www.omahaplayhouse.com, calling 402-553-0800, or visiting the box office. Due to some adult language, parental discretion is advised.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Colin Conces Photography

Chasing the Dream, Part 2

The Empty Plough really rocked me, but, like the mighty phoenix, I rose again.

With my senior year at Creighton fast approaching, I vowed to do everything within my power to get cast.  The first audition of that year was Children of a Lesser god.  This play had an added level of difficulty due to the use of sign language throughout the entirety of the play.  I decided this would be a good way to help me stand out from the crowd, so, in addition to preparing one of the roles, I also taught myself the ASL alphabet.

I was the first reader of the night and I met Alan Klem, who would eventually become responsible for a key moment in my avocation.  Alan seemed impressed that I had learned the ASL alphabet already and gave me a monologue to read.  And I gave a fairly good showing in the read.  I must have read well enough because Alan moved me to the next phase of the audition which was to do the same scene again, but do it with no words and still get the meaning across to a deaf audience.

I was caught flat footed by that request.

However, I decided to go down swinging.  I gave a Herculean effort, but I knew it wasn’t working.  I looked at Alan and I knew he knew I knew it wasn’t working.  When I finished, I was dismissed with a brief, “Thank you.”  I knew I didn’t need to examine the cast list later that week, but I did anyway.  And, to no surprise, I was not cast.

The one act festival made its return this year, only this time (and ever since) it was directed by theatre students.  I mostly read for a show called Carwash and I had another solid showing.  This time I even lasted until the bitter end as I was asked to stay for a final examination as the director, Brent Tierney, kept several actors just to examine our appearances against one another.  Again, it was another defeat as I failed to find my name on the cast list.

Needless to say, I was really starting to get frustrated with the whole process.  There are very few things that match the colossal risk of the audition.  If you audition properly (even if you don’t do it well), you open yourself up and leave it all hang out.  And to be that open and to get denied again and again can take a tremendous toll because it feels so personal, yet is not.  It is never a director’s intent to make you feel bad.  A director wants you to be the answer to his or her casting problem, but he or she looks for a lot more than just the acting.  It’s how you look, how you sound, how you look compared to others, etc.  The director is looking for the whole.  An actor can only control his or her acting and that counts for a very small part of the casting process.

But I digress.  I had one final chance to get cast.  Creighton was going to produce a play called Death of a Blind, Old Man and it was a modern day interpretation of Oedipus at Colonus.  As I went through the audition, I had another flash.  I noticed that everyone auditioning for the role of Oedipus played him like Superman.  I knew that the only thing super about Oedipus at this point was his ability to suffer.  When I got the chance to read for him, I jerked the rug right out from under his feet.  I made him a truly pitiable, tragic figure and I noted that several people I was reading with really got into this take on the character.

The director, Bill Hutson, stopped the read with a booming, “Good.”  I felt really proud of my work that night and as I sat down, I was congratulated by a friend of mine for an awesome read.  A short while later, Bill asked a few people to stay and dismissed the rest of us, but said, “Just because I’m asking you to leave doesn’t mean you haven’t been cast.”

That Friday, I rushed over to the Performing Arts Center as soon as I got on the campus.  I was tingling with anticipation as I approached the cast line.  Nervously I ran my finger down the list and saw that my name was nowhere to be found. 

I leaned my head against the call board and heaved a heavy sigh.  I just wanted to crumple to the floor and vanish.  For four years, I had given my all and I couldn’t even land a bit part.  I thought my theatre days were over.

But I still wanted to be involved.  So I signed up for an Oral Interpretation of Literature class in the spring semester of my senior year.  As I went through the class, I learned that I slowly won my teacher, Alan Klem, over.  Many of my performances were well received and Alan dubbed me the master of dialects as I seemed to have a knack for mimicking various accents.  Towards the end of the term, Alan stopped me before class and said he had just received the graduating seniors list and saw that my name was on it.  I admitted that I was graduating and he said, “I’m really sorry to hear that.  I wish you had about 2 years left to go because I can see you going a long way in plays.”

With that statement, I found the strength to go on for a little longer.  I had recently discovered community theatre and I decided that I would give theatre one more year and if I could not get cast in that time, then I would call it quits.

And that’s when things took a turn. . .

To be continued