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Lorraine Hansberry’s Wisdom

Oregon Shakespeare Festival revives play by African American playwright

Darleen Ortega | 4/2/2014, 10:41 a.m.
Alton Scales (Armando McClain) is interested in the news in Iris’ (Sofia Jean Gomez) sister’s letter in a scene from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,’ now playing through July 3. Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Their community exposes them to an array of intellectual perspectives. Their cynical upstairs neighbor, David, is a gay playwright who is closeted outside their circle. Another friend, Walter, is running an underdog campaign that purports to provide a clean alternative to dirty local politics.

Alton, a light-skinned black man who passes as white, chides Sidney for his lack of political engagement. Alton is in love with Iris's younger sister Gloria, who he believes is a model but who Sidney and Iris know is a high-class call girl. Gloria is a heartbreaking mix of vulnerability, hope, and cynicism. Finally, Iris's older sister, Mavis, appears to be the most conventional of the three sisters, dropping by to offer provincial comments and judgments that strike Sidney as naive and, occasionally, dangerous.

Part of what makes the play so wonderful is that these characters are not just types, but believable, flawed human beings. Their struggles are presented deftly and with empathy -- yet no one gets off easy. Each character has moments that illuminate genuine suffering -- shockingly clear and nuanced moments for 1964, and refreshingly so even for 2014. Yet each character also displays small-minded impulses; each grasps for primacy in whatever form, be it the moral high ground or simply the power to get one's own needs met at someone else's expense.

This community of intellectuals -- relatively accepting for 1964 -- can converse about problems that occupy us still, with a level of insight that at times seems enviable even to current ears. Yet action consistent with their ideals often eludes them.

That anyone -- let alone a black woman in 1964 -- dared to assemble this cast of flawed characters and to struggle in such a nuanced way with the problems that occupy their existence is remarkable. But Hansberry attempted more. Her play grapples with what it means to be human, to take a stand and attempt to contribute to positive change, even when one's efforts seem unsatisfying or futile.

Each of the characters struggles uniquely with the problem of engagement –of whether and how to aim for something, and of what balance to strike between analysis and courageous agency. The mix of results is surprising.

For example, Mavis, whose assessments of others are chock full of conventional stereotypes, nevertheless displays a remarkable capacity for nuance. Compared to Sidney, Wally seems a man of action -- but his articulation of how he subordinates his principles in the name of expediency seems chillingly familiar. Meanwhile, Sidney and Iris are, by contrast, relatively stuck -- and one can question whether their principles are too robust or too inflexible.

Hansberry has no easy solution for these dilemmas -- and that is both a strength of the play and a problem for it. Sidney is rigid and often unlikable, and he undergoes a transformation late in the play that is not entirely satisfying. The conflicts in his marriage to Iris, too, are too thorny to find convincing resolution, although the final act offers something like one.