Tag Archives: Ashley Zhangazha

Raisin’ a Family


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 22nd March, 2016


Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 is a landmark play, now a period piece, but with continuing resonance in our benighted age.

Amanda Stoodley’s detailed set (even the milk bottles are spot on) shows us the Chicago apartment of the Younger family.  As Ruth (Alisha Bailey) organises breakfast and gets the day started we meet the family members as they emerge to use the bathroom they share with others in the building.  Ruth’s young son Travis (in a performance by Solomon Gordon that easily matches his grown-up counterparts in terms of energy and high quality) is a good boy, despite the hardship he faces, and the attempts of his father to spoil him.  As Walter, the man of the house, Ashley Zhangazha has touches of Willy Loman but also Jimmy Porter – he’s an angry young black man, not angry because of racial oppression but because of his frustrated ambitions.  He has glimpsed the American Dream and he wants his slice of the pie.  His marriage is under great strain because of his aspirations.  There are poweful moments between Zhangazha and Bailey – we share Ruth’s frustrations with her husband’s fatal flaw: the belief that material gain leads to happiness.

Hope comes in the form of an insurance cheque that wings its way to Lena, the matriarch.  Ten thousand smackers that could change all of their lives.  Walter wants to invest in a business venture with his ne’er-do-well drinking buddies; his sister Beneatha (Susan Wokoma) needs money for medical school…   Meanwhile, Ruth discovers she is pregnant and doesn’t know if they can afford to keep the child…

And so there is plenty of conflict and strife in a domestic setting.  Director Dawn Walton doesn’t muck about.   She allows Hansberry’s play to speak for itself while enabling her excellent ensemble to deliver credible and powerful character work, handling the crescendos of the quarrels and the contrasts in tone in a way that upholds the naturalism of the piece.  Beneatha is the play’s social conscience, an independent thinker, progressive for her time and portrayed in a sparky and funny performance by Susan Wokoma.  Beneatha challenges the dominant ethos – leading to a smack in the chops from her mother – Angela Wynter’s Lena is the backbone of the family and of the piece.   You wouldn’t want to cross her but you respect and admire her without question.

So far, so Arthur Miller, so August Wilson.  But Hansberry gives us something else into the bargain.  Walter may be the Willy Loman, but the female characters are given equal time to air their opinions and grievances. Lena’s down payment on a new family home in a ‘better’ area leads to a visit from a mealy-mouthed representative of the housing association (Mike Burnside).  It becomes apparent that the Youngers are undesirables and unwelcome in his neighbourhood.  Having laughed with this family and felt with them through their trials, we are behind them all the way.  The racism shocks us – How could people think like that? – and then shocks us again: there are still idiots, we realise, with the same twisted views of their fellow humans.

Still a powerful piece, here expertly delivered without gimmicks or labouring the point, A Raisin in the Sun is bursting with humanity.  It’s emotive entertainment that still packs a punch.

A Raisin in the Sun 1400x700 1

Alisha Bailey and Ashley Zhangazha

Fenced In


Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 10th April, 2013

Troy Maxson, sanitation worker, husband, father, bully and raconteur likes to hold court in the yard of his Pittsburgh home.  It is 1957 and he wins a minor victory at work, becoming the first black man to be promoted from loading garbage onto the back of a truck to driving the truck himself.  This is the ‘civil rights’ element of August Wilson’s plot, but the remarkable thing, historically, is the playwright’s body of work itself.  Blue collar black folks airing their grievances, revealing their personal lives, laughing, loving, fighting – all of that is here in a powerful drama to rival Arthur Miller.

Now a period piece, the play still chimes with the present.  Wife Rose bemoans the lack of aspiration she sees in the community, people never realising their lot in life could and should be improved.  Troy’s fatal flaw (he is ‘one for the ladies’) is not a rare trait and, more generally, we can all identify with that destructive impulse, when we go ahead and do what we oughtn’t, just to shake things up.  Troy seems unable to settle for what he has: at work this is to his credit; at home it is nothing but detrimental.

Lenny Henry is blisteringly good as Troy.  His experience as a stand-up brings life to Troy’s tall stories.  The comic timing is perfect.  Henry also brings depth to the character, in a multi-faceted performance that is touching and powerful.

Tanya Moodie is excellent as wife Rose, able to stand her ground.  We feel Troy’s tragic fall but it is Rose who gets our sympathy.  There is a shift in the power structure of the relationship as she finds a way to accommodate disaster, while Troy shuns his youngest son out of little more than stubborn pride.

Ashley Zhangazha is son Cory, whose dreams of professional (American) football are trampled by his dad because Troy’s own ambitions of baseball were never realised.  ‘Swinging for the fences’ is no longer encouraged.   He and Henry share some tense moments.  Colin McFarlane brings out Troy’s more waggish aspects as best friend Jim Bono – their eventual alienation, understated, is also touching.  Troy’s fence around the yard is complete, shutting some people out and keeping some people in.

Paulette Randall’s direction is unfussy, giving the characters room to live.  Shifts between humour and tension are handled extremely well.  The play ends with a non-naturalistic moment as brother Gabriel puffs ineffectually into his trumpet, as a warning to St Peter that the time of Judgment is at hand.  We are suddenly plunged into the broken mind of this mentally impaired war veteran with a metal plate in his head.  The lighting changes. Drums pound.  He dances.  It’s an incongruous finish, and a little jarring.  Perhaps a more downbeat ending would be more in keeping; I don’t know.   It’s what people were buzzing about as we filed out of the auditorium.

This quirky bit aside, Fences is a rewarding piece, a convincing portrayal of a strong man brought low by his own actions – and that is the essence of tragedy.

 lenny henry