These are hard times for PBS. Vast changes in technology and lifestyle, coupled with withering economic forces and timid leadership, threaten the existence of public television as we've known it for the past 43 years.
So on the rare occasions these days when the Public Broadcasting Service does something bold and gets it mostly right, it's a cause for celebration by all those who believe that America should have at least one national channel that isn't commercial.
"A Raisin in the Sun Revisited: The Raisin Cycle at Center Stage," a documentary that traces the arc of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 drama from its setting on Chicago's South Side to Baltimore's Center Stage in 2013, is one of the bolder and better things PBS has done this TV season. The film premieres as part of the PBS Arts Fall Festival at 9 tonight on MPT.
The hourlong production focuses on the conversation about race, neighborhoods, home ownership, social class and the American dream that Hansberry launched with her civil-rights-era play.
Viewers also get to see two plays being mounted at the regional theater on Calvert Street. From readings to rehearsals, backstage opening-night jitters to rousing curtain calls, the documentary takes its audience behind the scenes of the Baltimore staging of "Clybourne Park" and the world premiere of "Beneatha's Place." All along, the film explores the vision of Kwame Kwei-Armah, playwright and artistic director of Center Stage.
The cycle explored in the documentary started in 1959 with the stage premiere of Hansberry's landmark play about the Youngers, a multigenerational African-American family living in a cramped apartment on the South Side of Chicago. A $10,000 life insurance payment lets the matriarch buy a home for the Youngers in the fictional all-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park.
In 2010, playwright Bruce Norris debuted his "Clybourne Park," which is set in the home of the white couple about to sell their property to the Youngers.
Kwei-Armah's "Beneatha's Place" also opens in 1959, with the playwright continuing the story of Beneatha Younger, one of the characters in "A Raisin in the Sun," who looked to Africa in defining her identity.
Kwei-Armah and Center Stage could hardly ask for a better showcase. And while I have a problem with one punch PBS pulled in an all-too-typical attempt to avoid controversy, "The Raisin Cycle" makes public television look more connected to the intellectual and civic life of American cities than I can remember it looking in a long time.
On one level, viewers will feel as if they spent the hour in a real regional theater in a real American city — not in a studio at WNET in New York or, worse, a set somewhere in the U.K. with characters in period costumes. For all the artifice of theater, viewers will also feel as if they at least brushed up against race as it is lived and breathed in places like the South Side of Chicago and downtown Baltimore, not as it is blah-blah-blahed in abstract discussions among upper-middle-class academic and journalistic talkingheads on PBS panel shows in Washington.
"Tonight, we explore the legacy of 'A Raisin in the Sun' and see how two new plays continue that conversation on race in America," Anna Deavere Smith says at the opening of the hour. Smith, who hosts the arts series for PBS, was herself born and raised in Baltimore.
Kwei-Armah says that while many theaters have paired "Raisin" with "Clybourne Park," he felt Center Stage could "push the envelope" by "creating a new play" altogether.
The production, set in 1959 in Nigeria, received its world premiere at Center Stage during the 2012-2013 season, the theater's 50th anniversary.
The postmodern concept of taking pieces, characters and settings of Hansberry's work and creating new plays that explore race in the 1950s as well as today is compelling in its own right. All praise to any prime-time TV production in these dumbed-down media days that explores as intellectually daring a notion as that.
But what I found most appealing about the film were the backstage details.
One of the richest features Jessica Frances Dukes, an outstanding actress who plays Beneatha, sitting at a makeup table hurriedly but systematically applying makeup.
"Right now, I am transforming from 24 to 70, and all of this is happening during the show at intermission — 15 minutes," Dukes says as the camera shows viewers her face reflected in a small circular mirror on the table.
"I always think of my grandmother's face," she says, drawing deep, dark lines around her eyes. "What I remember of her face."
Talk about fly on the wall, as the camera alternates shooting her head-on with reflections of her face in mirrors as it changes.
The segment ends with Dukes pulling a wig into place and triumphantly saying, "There she is."
And, indeed, Dukes is transformed — right down to the slower, grander and more matronly movements with which she places the wig.
I also love the way footage from the 1961 feature film version of "Raisin" is used in the early part of the documentary to ground the TV audience in a sense of time and place for the overarching narrative.
The bits of film featuring Sidney Poitier, who as Walter Lee Younger embodied the energy and moral righteousness of the civil rights struggle like no other actor of the era, are brilliantly chosen and skillfully placed. Credit that to veteran national arts producers James Arntz and John Paulson, who made the documentary in collaboration with Maryland Public Television.
On the other hand, I am disappointed the film doesn't mention — let alone explore — the issues Kwei-Armah has acknowledged having with "Clybourne Park," which won a Pulitzer Prize. The different ways in which these two playwrights, one black and the other white, see the same material perfectly underscores the larger theme of the difficulty of discussing race in general society.
Baltimore Sun arts critic Tim Smith summarized the matter this way: "Kwei-Armah has spoken of his admiration for the Norris play, but he has also expressed disappointment with what he views as implied conclusions in 'Clybourne Park' that a black neighborhood will inevitably decline and that black men are not up to par intellectually with whites. Norris, it must be noted, disagrees with his fellow playwright's interpretation."
Sun arts reporter Mary Carole McCauley, who interviewed both playwrights, notes of Kwei-Armah: "In particular, he's troubled that Norris' Clybourne Park is a solidly middle-class neighborhood when white people live in it but a slum after black people move in. … In addition, Kwei-Armah also was rankled by two powder-keg jokes in 'Clybourne Park's' second act that insult black men and white women in turn."
None of that is in the documentary, and its absence is inexcusable.
But the final few minutes of this film played over a soundtrack of Ray Charles singing "America the Beautiful" ultimately redeem any and all sins, at least for the moment. The editing of the montage to the rhythm of the anthem is pitch perfect.
The "Raisin Cycle" could have been better. But it is still good for PBS and very, very good for Baltimore's Center Stage. And in these hard economic times for the arts, that, too, is a cause for celebration.