Last weekend, Mixed Blood Theatre opened the Midwest premiere of playwright Thomas W. Jones II’s play A Cool Drink a Water. The play is an ambitious modernized, alternative-universe portrayal of the characters from Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun, which debuted on Broadway in 1959. Just as the Raisin title came from the Langston Hughes’s poem “Dream Deferred,” the title for Cool Drink comes from a poem by poet Maya Angelou that also refers to the struggle to achieve one’s dreams. But whereas in Raisin the characters looked to the future to fulfill their dreams, in Cool Drink the characters look to their past to find a direction forward.
Raisin tells the story of the Youngers, an African-American family. (Caution, for those who haven’t seen it: this paragraph contains plot spoilers.) The father recently died and left the family life insurance proceeds of $10,000. The play focuses on the family dynamics as the Youngers clash over how to spend the money. Mama Lee, the matriarch of the family, wants to use the money to buy a house in a white neighborhood to provide a better life for the family. Her adult son Walter Lee wants to use the money to invest in a liquor store, and her adult daughter Beneatha wants to use the money to go to medical school. By the end of the play, Mama Lee has put a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood and intends to move, although her soon-to-be white neighbors try to persuade her to the contrary. Walter Lee blows what is left of the insurance money by giving it to a friend to invest, but the friend promptly disappears. Beneatha rejects a well-to-do suitor, and the play ends with her considering a proposal from her Nigerian college friend Joseph Asagai, who wants her to go to medical school and then return to Africa with him.
|a cool drink a water, presented at mixed blood theatre through october 10. for tickets ($15-$28) and information, see mixedblood.com.|
Although I initially thought the play was picking up on the Younger clan in a time period 20 to 30 years later, it becomes clear that this is not a sequel, but rather an alternative telling of the Youngers’ future. Mama Lee (Isabell Monk O’Connor) is now dead, but she watches over her family and she makes references to her children living in the house as youngsters and not as the young adults they were in the original play.
The story picks up with Benita (a.k.a. Beneatha, played by Sonja Parks) and her husband Asa (Ansa Alyea), returning from Africa and staying with her brother Walt, his wife Ruthie and their son Trane. Both Benita and Asa have witnessed the various genocides in Africa over the past 20 years and are now scarred, hurting and distant from each other due to the experience. Benita, now a doctor, works to support them both but spends her evenings in the bathroom throwing up from her undisclosed pregnancy and talking to the deceased Mama Lee in the bathroom mirror.
Walt, played by playwright Thomas W. Jones II, is still thinking up get-rich schemes, but this time he does so after having spent 25 years as a responsible family man who worked his way up to management from a lowly factory job only to get laid off in his middle age. The conflict between Ruthie (Regina Marie Williams) and Walt now centers on their unemployed, hip-hop artist son Trane (Nathan Barlow) and Ruthie’s desire to spend their retirement at peace and not in any get-rich “bed and breakfast combo nightclub” scheme of Walt.
The house again is an issue in the play but, in contrast to Raisin, it is not the central focus. Walt wants to sell it to a developer for a large sum of money, whereas other family members want the house to remain in the family. Even so, the pregnant Benita and her husband are buying their own home and an argument between Walt and Trane results in Trane planning to move out.
There is much humor in the show, but most of it comes from sitcom-type dialogue about problems in the bedroom between the men and their wives. In this respect, Jones provides a delightfully humorous portrayal of Walt, making him much more human and likeable than Sidney Poitier’s portrayal of Walter in the film version of Raisin. There is more drama and heartache when the story centers on Benita and Asa, but the sisterly talk between Ruthie and Benita was both funny and touching. The other actors also put in strong performances in this ensemble cast.
One drawback to the show is that so much of the humor centers on the bedroom jokes involving his parent’s love life; Trane, who is never present for these comic scenes, becomes a marginal character in the play. His scenes seem tacked on and many of his scenes are performed solo. Thus, Trane’s character never really integrates into the storyline. It might have been better to have him be a son who is talked about but never seen so as not to interrupt the interaction between the original characters from Raisin.
Although race was a major theme in Raisin, it is not so prominently discussed in this show. There are references to how Walt felt making it as the first black manager at his factory, but much of A Cool Drink examines themes universal to the family experience.
The set by Andrea Heilman is amazingly compact and efficient; the audience at all times can view all three bedrooms, the bathroom with Mama Lee, the kitchen, and the living room. It has the feel of a very lived-in home, perfectly supporting this family story.