This is the gut reaction that motivates Norris’ work, a riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun.” It is set entirely in a Chicago house whose walls tell the story of “white flight,” declining prosperity and burgeoning gentrification that has played out in so many neighborhoods across the United States.
The production, which takes place in 1959 and 2009, is a smart choice by Road Less Traveled Productions and its community-minded co-founder, Scott Behrend, who directs the show. As Buffalo’s struggling neighborhoods continue to reel from the effects of last century’s exodus to the suburbs, Western New Yorkers will be able to find themselves in the mirror this show holds up. The reflection is not flattering.
In the first act, we get a glimpse into the dying days of the urban middle-class dream. Bev (Lisa Vitrano) and her husband, Russ (the phenomenal David Mitchell), are getting ready for their big move to the suburbs. They’ve sold their house to a black family – though we never see them, they’re meant to be the central characters in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Their neighbor Karl (Witten) cannot abide this situation and tries to persuade them to go back on the deal.
Karl’s increasingly agitated tap-dance around the subject is met with Russ’ expletive-riddled answer, which, Norris seems to suggest, is the only sensible response. But in the second act, as a group of lawyers and neighborhood residents sit in the now-disheveled living room to discuss plans to knock it down and build a new house in its place, it doesn’t seem to have done any good.
In this act, Witten plays half of the white couple that has purchased the house after years of abandonment opposite the hilarious Diane Curley. Though he has his own woefully misguided ideas about race, he is the only character willing to talk about those biases out loud. He is rebuked constantly by many of the other characters, who seem determined to follow the same circuitous choreography around the issue as the sad sacks in the first act.