Conflict between a theatre critic and the artists whose work they're judging is nothing new, but Tonya Pinkins is taking particular issue with The New York Times' Jesse Green over his review of The Public Theater's Off-Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Pinkins stars in the production as Lena Younger. In an open letter to Green posted to Medium, Pinkins alleges that the influential critic missed the point of director Robert O'Hara's production.
Hansberry's landmark play, which debuted on Broadway in 1959, follows a Black family living in a run-down apartment in Chicago. They debate over how to spend a life insurance payout following the death of the family's patriarch. Walter Lee Younger, played in The Public's revival by Francois Battiste, wants to use the money to invest in a liquor store. His mother, Lena, played by Pinkins, looks to use the funds as a down payment on a home in a better neighborhood.
Pinkins alleges that Green's mixed review "contributed to the production's early closure and thwarts any possibility of a move beyond Off-Broadway." Though the Off-Broadway run has extended twice (and is playing until November 20), the letter implies that a longer run was once in the cards.
Pinkins goes on to say that the revival, which was "misunderstood and panned by the New York Times," was performed "as Lorraine intended." In O'Hara's production, instead of the show ending on a note of hope, it ends in a much more cynical manner.
According to Pinkins, Green's assertion in his review that "O’Hara concentrates his prodigious theatrical imagination on Walter Lee" is a misreading of both O'Hara's production and Hansberry's writing.
Pinkins responds to that particular line in the review by writing, "[a] cursory view of the director’s playbill notes explicitly states that this production’s intent is to center the three women, because Robert O’Hara asked, 'Why is a play by a queer Black woman with four Black women characters known as a play about a Black man’s dreams?'" Pinkins characterizes Green's response as indicative of misogynoir, "the anti-Black racist misogyny that Black women experience." She wrote: "Your attention focused on Francois Battiste’s Walter Lee and you projected that onto the production. The Black women’s humor, but not heroism, is what stood out for you."
Pinkins writes that O'Hara's direction "does not shy away from the misogyny and alcoholic disfunction that Hansberry" wrote into the character of Walter Lee. And according to Pinkins, Green's focus on Walter Lee comes at the expense of the women in the story: "You focus on Black male brokenness rather than all the Black women's strength."
Pinkins ends her letter urging Green to revisit the production: "Try to see what Lorraine intended. What Robert O'Hara intended. Approach it as you would a new country or culture. You don't have to like me, I'm an acquired taste. It won't save the production, it might enrich your soul."
In response to Pinkins' open letter, the Public Theater has sent Playbill a statement, reading, "The Public Theater is committed to creating civically engaged theater that prompts thoughtful discourse beyond our stages. We are incredibly proud of our production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, including Robert O’Hara’s vision and the extraordinary work the entire company brings forth at every performance."
The Public's production stars Battiste and Pinkins as Walter Lee Younger and Lena Younger, respectively, appearing alongside John Clay III as Joseph Asagai, Bjorn Dupaty as Moving Man, Calvin Dutton as Bobo, Brandon Dial as George Murchison, Perri Gaffney as Mrs. Johnson, Paige Gilbert as Beneatha Younger, Christopher Marquis Lindsay as Moving Man, Mandi Masden as Ruth Younger, and Jesse Pennington as Karl Lindner.
Battiste's son, Toussaint Battiste, alternates in the role of Travis Younger with Camden McKinnon. Rounding out the company as understudies are Almeria Campbell, Vann Dukes, Skyler Gallun, and N'yomi Stewart.
Directed by O'Hara, the production features scenic design by Clint Ramos, costume design by Karen Perry, lighting design by Alex Jainchill, sound design by Elisheba Ittoop, sound system design by Will Pickens, hair and wig design by Nikiya Mathis, video design by Brittany Bland, and movement direction by Rickey Tripp. Prop management is by Claire M. Kavanah, with Teniece Divya Johnson serving as fight and intimacy director. Clarissa Marie Ligon is production stage manager and Andie Burns is stage manager.