After starring as Beneatha Younger in the Sydney Theater Company’s production of A Raisin in the Sun, Angela Mahlatjie wondered if Australian audiences would ‘get’ the play, recalling a conversation she had with a US national.
“He was a black American man,” Mahlatjie said.
“And he was really like, I’m very interested to see if they’ll get it. And I said, I’m interested to see if they’ll get it too, because it’s quite subtle, but very poignant .
“And I think that’s a mirror. In Australia, the racism is very subtle, but it’s very real.”
A Raisin in the Sun was first performed on Broadway in 1959. It is about a family who lives in a rundown apartment on the South Side of Chicago.
The story centers on a $10,000 life insurance check that family matriarch Lena Younger (Gayle Samuels) awaits after the death of her husband. Lena ends up using some of the money to put a down payment on a house in a nicer neighborhood — but that neighborhood is also predominantly white.
Mahlatjie said playing Lena’s daughter was the highlight of her career.
“I hadn’t read a screenplay, a play anyway, that was so specifically written for an experience that I understood,” she said.
Her character Beneatha wants more, strives for more, and is determined to fulfill her dream of being a doctor.
“It really resonated because in my family I’m the only actor,” Mahlatjie said.
“Especially where I’m from, which is Botswana, which is in southern Africa, if you’re not making money, don’t.
“And acting is one of those things where you have to really love it and be passionate about it and be resilient enough to pursue it until you’re successful, whatever that means to you.
“And so, I feel like Beneatha and I share that kind of passion and zest for the thing that we want to do, no matter what people say.”
Mahlatjie said she and her character also choose to do certain things a certain way because they are young black women.
She said black people in Australia were quite often stereotyped and work was often harder to get.
“Even now, being black is hard. It’s a bit of a speed bump, it’s hard to get over it,” she said.
“In 2020, during COVID, a lot has come to light in terms of racism in Australia, primarily for people of colour, black people.
“And I think this piece really shows how marginalized we still are… there’s all of these things that still exist today in Australia.
“And I think the piece speaks to them in a very political way.”
She said the play was universal in the way it portrayed family, something everyone could relate to.
“Because everyone has a family. Everyone can relate to the family dynamic. But if you add this thing of being ‘the other’, and how does that affect your family, and how does that affect the potential of your family following their passions and dreams, I think there’s a nuance to that that could be instructive for people.”
Nancy Denis isn’t in the room for long. But she steals the show with a hard-hitting performance as Younger’s South Side neighbor Mrs. Johnson.
“She is the voice of the community around them,” Denis said of her character.
“Ms. Johnson represents some of the fears the Younger family certainly have, but do not necessarily express.”
She said the neighborhood the family wanted to move to presented challenges, but was also a real danger.
“At the time, in the 1950s, there were a lot of bombings against blacks in white neighborhoods. Basically, whites were in charge of eradicating any form of integration with blacks at the era.”
She said this concept was no stranger to 2022.
Interestingly, Mrs. Johnson is cut from the 1961 film starring Sidney Poitier. But Denis said she’s a key character who brings lift.
“Lorraine [Hansberry] wrote this piece in its entirety, it’s a piece on its own,” Denis said.
“And Ms. Johnson’s character, I think, is an important element, because even though the words that come out of her mouth are awful, her energy prepares you for what’s to come.”
It is the first time that A Raisin in the Sun has been produced in Australia and it is directed by internationally acclaimed playwright, artistic director and Noonuccal Nuugi man from Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), Wesley Enoch.
Enoch said in a director’s note that: “Plays are a window into our times. They record the hopes and aspirations of the times in which they are written, and then again when they are produced.”
Denis said there were many reasons why people should go watch it.
“It’s just an amazing piece,” she said.
“[Hansberry has] writes characters so full and complete, she doesn’t miss a beat.
“And it’s such a pleasure to… have his words come out of my mouth and hopefully bring him justice and honor.”
The The Sydney Theater Company production of A Raisin in the Sun will play until October 15.