Wharf 1 Theatre, September 1


Walter has sufficient self-knowledge to describe himself as a volcano; one erupting with a lava of bitterness. He sees a future mapped out before him in which he continues to chauffeur a rich white man, while his young son, Travis, continues to sleep on a sofa. Walter also dares to dream, and a dream deferred, as Langston Hughes wrote, dries up “like a raisin in the sun”. Walter’s dream is to open a Chicago liquor store, and thereby to share in the lavishness he sees others enjoying, as if looking out from inside a cage.

Angela Mahlatjie and Gayle Samuels. Top: Bert Labonte. Photos: Joseph Mayers.

It’s taken 63 years for Lorraine Hansberry’s magnum opus to receive a mainstage production in Australia, but it was worth the wait. The African American’s play is a masterclass in how to address racism (with a generous side-order of sexism) without carping or being didactic. Hansberry’s visionary political drama confronts bigotry with self-respect and, in the case of Walter, redemption.

Bitterness has partially dried up Walter’s humour and that of his mother, Lena, who has recently lost her husband, and now awaits the $10,000 life insurance cheque (which when it arrives, is treated like a holy relic). But it has not quite desiccated the humour of his wife, Ruth, and especially not that of his sister, Beneatha, who is studying medicine at a time when that was rare for a woman, let alone a black woman. She’s the spice in the familial dish, and is also probably closest to the playwright’s voice, with her search for identity and craving for self-expression. The genius of Hansberry’s writing is that it is the very friction between her characters that sparks the humour.

Angela Mahlatjie. Photos: Joseph Mayers.

Director Wesley Enoch (for Sydney Theatre Company) treats the play with loving respect. It’s superbly cast and designed (Mel Page’s set having an authenticity that depicts not just a damp-walled flat, but somehow implies a neighbourhood around it). Only one scene doesn’t fully realise the work’s dazzling potential. Extraordinarily, this was Hansberry’s first play, and is crafted primarily as a series of duets that continually subvert emotions and expectations, so everything has a flipside. Ruth’s joy in Lena’s having bought a house with the insurance money, for instance, is immediately punctured by the discovery that the property lies in an all-white neighbourhood. A pervading flaw is that one character’s exit too often artificially triggers another’s entrance, yet we accommodate that, such is the more pervasive potency.

Bert Labonte plays Walter with the lava oozing from every pore, and makes his redemption flare up like a bonfire – or as Lena will have it, “like a rainbow after the rain”. The only scene he doesn’t maximise is that in which he learns he has been ripped off, when the whole production momentarily loses its beacon-like sense of truth.

Zahra Newman and Bert LaBonte. Photos: Joseph Mayers .

Zahra Newman’s portrayal of Ruth, while having tiny cracks early on, is stunning when she breaks down or is ecstatic. Gayle Samuels’ Lena is a little slower to convince, but she builds a character as solid as the house she buys. Standing out, though, is Angela Mahlatje’s Beneatha, her eyes flashing with wit one moment and savage sarcasm the next. She makes us warm to Beneatha’s idealism, whether zany or just.

The exceptional cast is completed by Leinad Walker, Adolphus Waylee (who’s like a sun coming out on a cloudy day as the Nigerian Asagai), Jacob Warner, Nancy Denis and Ibrahima Yade (alternating with Gaius Nolan) as young Travis. Collectively they make drama tinged with greatness.

Until October 15.