Two productions that opened in town this weekend offer timely and poignant reminders of the toll placed on human souls and psyches by racism and racist policies.
Resonance Works’ new opera I am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams centers on the plight of Rosa (mezzo soprano Maria Dominique Lopez), an undocumented woman who has been arrested after a protest she organized turned violent and resulted in the death of a firefighter. She has been assigned a pro bono attorney, Singa (soprano Helen Zhibing Huang), and as Singa attempts to help Rosa craft her defense strategy, the opera – with music by Jorge Sosa and libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs – traces the similarities and differences between the two women’s experiences as first generation immigrants to the US.
The similarities between the two women’s journeys are developed in flashbacks that feature two young performers, Elizabeth Rosales (playing the young Rosa) and Chengxi Tao (as young Singa). We see how both families fled danger; how both girls carried the trauma of the violence they escaped into their experience of migration; and how both have been impacted by their racial and cultural “outsider” status in the US. But where Singa “fought to stay and used the law,” Rosa has found that in her fight to stay, the “law used me”: Singa managed to leverage her status as a “model minority” to obtain documentation, a degree, and a prestigious job, conferring on her a privilege that Rosa can only dream of. And now that dream is threatened: not only is it likely that Rosa will be deported because of this arrest, but her daughter Sol (Gabriella Hernandez) – a US citizen by birth – will be left with no one to care for her.
The opera pulls its audience into empathy with both women’s struggles, through both text and music. Conductor Maria Sellner leads the sizable orchestra with sensitivity, and the minimalist design (scenery by Sasha Schwartz, costumes by Damian Dominguez, lights by Annmarie Duggan, and sound by Kristian Tchetchko) serves the opera’s straightforward storytelling. Lopez and Huang are powerful singers, and although much of the action is static, they create a vivid emotional journey through the modulation of voice and feeling. Rosales and Tao are excellent as well, delivering authentic and understated performances as fearful children, and their singing is strong and clear. Soprano Natalie Polito plays an array of antagonists – a gangster, Singa’s mother, a Trumpian prosecutor – with nuance, and a large chorus of young performers from the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus – all of whom have excellent stage presence – establishes visually what’s really at stake in this story: our investment in the future that is represented by the next generation.
A Raisin in the Sun, in a new production at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, also traces the intergenerational effects of racism and racist policies. A classic by Lorraine Hansberry, it tells the story of the Younger family: mother Lena (E. Faye Butler), her son Walter Lee (Rico Parker) and daughter Beneatha (Hope M. Anthony), Walter Lee’s wife Ruth (Dedra D. Woods) and son Travis (Tose Adewumi/Ty Gilliam). It’s the early 1950s, and all of these family members are crammed into a small two-bedroom apartment on Chicago’s South Side, where they are barely scraping by with income from domestic work and chauffeuring. Hope comes in the form of a large insurance check that Walter Lee wants to use to establish himself as an entrepreneur (he hopes to open a liquor store with friends); but Lena and Ruth dream of moving into a better home, and Beneatha aspires to become a doctor. The play’s essential conflict derives from Lena’s decision about how to use the money: she puts a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood, which spins off a series of actions and reactions.
Although it is very much of its time – and the PPT production, to its credit, does a great job of recreating details of a 1950s mode of living, down to an old-fashioned match striker mounted on the vintage gas stove and an electrical outlet at the base of a lighting fixture – A Raisin in the Sun is a play about several topics still relevant today: colorism, real estate redlining, the impact of the legacy of slavery on intergenerational wealth, microaggressions, and the intersections of class and race. But what may most resonate with viewers is Hansberry’s insightful depiction of the competing pressures and insults that racism inflicts on the human psyche and soul, particularly through Walter Lee’s tormented conflict over how best to be the “man of the family.”
Director Timothy McCuen Piggee embraces the realism of this play, even choosing to have the characters cook and eat real food on stage (there is a working sink and stove in the kitchen). The family’s apartment, as designed by Jennifer J. Zeyl, is a riot of clashing floral patterns, and there are flowers everywhere else, too: on the plates, on most of Alethia R. Moore-Del Monaco’s period-accurate costumes, and on gift boxes and a hat that plays a role toward the end of the play. I suppose that this motif stems from Lena’s stated desire for a “patch of grass where I could grow a few flowers”; in any case, it establishes her as a person who has done all she can to create an environment of beauty in an otherwise dingy setting. The ensemble, which is uniformly strong, also includes Brenden Peifer as the lighter-skinned, upper-class George Murchison and Kevis Hillocks as the Nigerian-born Joseph Asagai (both of whom are vying for Beneatha’s affections), Samual S. Lothard as the hapless Bobo, who is also caught up in the swindle that nearly destroys Walter Lee, and Ken Bolden as Mr. Lindner, the nervous representative of the “welcoming committee” that seeks to keep the Younger family from moving into their new home.
The nearly three-hour production gains steam as it goes; indeed, it’s in the second act that the actors seem to really hit their stride. There, both Parker and Butler bring the anguish of the play’s central betrayal fully into their bodies, and it’s in these remarkable and devastating moments that the production transcends its realism and vividly tallies both the psychic and the physical price that racism exacts from its victims.