Kenny Leon founded True Colors in part to "preserve the rich canon of Negro American classics," and few plays fit the bill more than Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. In 1959, Raisin became the first Broadway play written by an African-American woman, and this April, Leon makes his own Broadway debut by directing Raisin at the Royale Theatre with P. Diddy and Phylicia Rashad.
But Theatre in the Square, not True Colors, is producing Raisin, directed by Carol Mitchell-Leon (Leon's former spouse). Meanwhile, True Colors offers the quippy Southern-woman tearjerker Steel Magnolias, the kind of show the suburb-friendly Marietta playhouse could do in its sleep.
Raisin fits with the kind of classics Theatre in the Square frequently dusts off, while Magnolias seems a calculated move from True Colors. There's always a community theater production of the knee-jerk crowd pleaser going on somewhere, so Magnolias seems like an easy sell to Atlanta's middle-class theater audience. But True Colors doesn't lazily stage Magnolias, and it benefits greatly by stressing the seriousness in the script. Theatre in the Square approaches Hansberry's play almost reverently and dampens its intensity, making Raisin sweeter than it needs to be.
In Steel Magnolias, playwright Robert Harling walks a line between familiar small-town types and drawling Dixie caricatures, and the excruciating 1989 film focused only on the latter. But the play needn't be so ham-handed. In a Louisiana town, Truvy's beauty parlor provides a feminine inner sanctum for six friends in a time span of more than two-and-a-half years, beginning with the wedding of young Shelby (Jenny Wales). On hand to fuss, gossip and swap recipes are Shelby's mother, M'Lynn (Marianne Fraulo), M'Lynn's friends Clairee (Nita Hardy) and Ouiser (Jill Jane Clements), hairdresser Truvy (Elisabeth Omilami), and her new employee, Annelle (Bobbi Lynne Scott).
Harling frequently forces the comedy into broad camp: The first scene makes a running joke of M'Lynn's off-stage husband firing a gun to frighten away birds. The dialogue can feel quaint to the point of desperation, as if every line must be self-consciously quirky: "I love you more than my luggage!" "You are too twisted for color TV!"
The production includes tacky touches like red plastic poinsettia earrings and barber smocks with Scottie dog patterns, but it never goes over the top. Likewise, the ensemble gives Clements room to camp it up as Ouiser, the most confrontational and abrasive of the group. Clements' high-pitched, rapid-fire drawl makes the role feel like a genuine crazy relative and not just a sitcom Southerner. Instead of letting Ouiser's hijinks set the pace, Magnolias emulates circumspect M'Lynn, whom Fraulo plays with a fittingly tender reserve. Near the end, she's more effective with a moment of quiet grief than the emotional outburst that follows it.
Director Kent Gash lets the script's jokiness take care of itself, and instead stays attuned to the play's undercurrents of fear and grief. As young Shelby bravely endures agonizing health troubles, she proves the play's "life force" character. But Wales also conveys Shelby's reckless, unrealistic side, ignoring risks to her health and the pain she causes others. Shelby's love of pink (her wedding colors are "Blush" and "Bashful") reinforces her childish qualities.
True Colors' Magnolias counters tradition by casting Truvy and Annelle (the Dolly Parton and Daryl Hannah roles in the movie) with African-American actresses Omilami and Scott, respectively. Omilami's character makes references to soul food and Jet magazine, but otherwise the subtle script changes aren't obtrusive. With Truvy a source of earthy humor and Annelle a mousy abandoned wife turned Baptist Bible thumper, the switch contradicts nothing in the script, and the actresses flesh out their roles with ease.
If you want to read racial politics into the casting, True Colors' Magnolias depicts African-American women working on the hair of wealthier white women. The subtext doesn't suggest the oppressive servitude of the Jim Crow South so much as a more contemporary bonding that ultimately cuts across race and class.
A Raisin in the Sun stands on its theme of social climbing and racial dignity. In Chicago's South Side, a $10,000 insurance settlement promises to offer the struggling Younger family, as the saying goes, "a way out of no way." When matriarch Lena (Freda Scott Giles) receives the check, she could apply it toward the purchase of a house so her family can move out of their cramped apartment. She could give it to her frustrated son, Walter Lee (Geoffrey D. Williams), so he can launch a liquor store. Or she could reserve it for proud daughter Beneatha's (Michele McCullough) medical school tuition.
The situation finds the fault lines in the family, just as Mitchell-Leon's production finds the humor in three generations of Youngers living practically on top of each other. Anguish lies close to the surface, yet Theatre in the Square's Raisin exercises too much restraint. Lena should be a force of nature, yet Giles brings out the nurturing side at the expense of the intimidating qualities. Lena strikes both of her children in the play, but they're the mildest of swats, not furious blows intended to knock sense into them.
As Walter (the Sidney Poitier role in the 1961 film), Williams proves comparably low-key. The characters talk about him like he's a ticking time bomb, and Walter even calls himself a "volcano." But Williams never seems so explosive, only antsy and temperamental. We empathize with his frustrations, but never find him bursting at the seams.
McCullough gives Beneatha the proud carriage one would expect from the role, but she makes the character almost too sure of herself. She's wooed by both a soft-spoken Nigerian and an aristocratic businessman, but since she never seems torn between the two, her decisions never surprise us.
In her speeches about racial assimilation, integration and "The Man," Hansberry's sentiments stay relevant but her language sounds dated. The play spells out its themes and intentions so overtly, there's not much to read into the show -- it wears its subtext on its sleeve.
Instead, Mitchell-Leon finds greatest success with Raisin's warmer, sunnier moments, such as the comic aspects of Beneatha's political activism: She raises eyebrows when she dons traditional African clothes and lets her Afro grow. Walter Lee's quiet moment urging his son to dream big provides Williams his most grounded, unguarded scene in the play. And Shontelle Thrash, as a busybody neighbor who delights in breaking bad news, turns the play's least important role into its most hilariously memorable.
Raisin seldom truly takes off. It's as if the Theatre in the Square production grips the reins too tightly. At True Colors, Gash holds Magnolias' extreme qualities in check so the deeper feelings show. A Raisin in the Sun remains unquestionably a superior and more important script than Steel Magnolias, but the two productions demonstrate that it's not just the play, but the ideas a company brings to the play, that really count.
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