Ask Philippa: 2014 Pre-season Edition

Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes, invites your questions about our 2014 season, which begins May 21. Subscriptions on sale now.

Headshot of Philippa Kelly

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo by Richard Friedman.

2014 brings a very exciting season for many reasons—not the least of which is that it’s Cal Shakes’ 40th anniversary.

First up is Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Patricia McGregor, who first joined us at the Bruns last in 2012 with her magnificent Spunk. A Raisin in the Sun offers a stunning portrait of a black family’s experience in racially divided Chicago, injecting domestic and racial tension into 1950s self-portraits of the post-war American Dream. Raisin made Hansberry the youngest playwright, the fifth woman, and the only black writer ever to win the New York Critics’ Circle award. (The play also inspired the Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, written 60 years later and directed by our own Jonathan Moscone in an award-winning production at A.C.T. in 2011). Next is Shakespeare’s early play The Comedy of Errors, directed by Aaron Posner, a comic take on mistaken identity that offers a brilliant look at the dark side of Shakespeare as well as the light—loss, isolation, family reunion, and redemption. Third in our season director Moscone brings us Pygmalion, often seen as George Bernard Shaw’s most enduringly important play, a savagely ironic critique of the British class system. (This play, too, made such a social impact that it gave birth, 44 years later, to another masterpiece, the musical My Fair Lady.) Lastly is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Shakespeare play most often described as “perfect” in its exploration of love that opens out, concertina-like, from an early threat of punishment and even death. Buoyed by perhaps the most beautifully poetic language of Shakespeare’s entire career, director Shana Cooper will take us into the “green world” of the forest—will the lovers emerge from the forest different, or more truly themselves?

Look out, too, for my free, off-season session, Reprises and Rehearsals, a look at how the plays of the 2013 and 2014 seasons connect to different works and themes in their authors’ lives. Date TBD. In the meantime, post any question or observation you like right now (and into the early spring) and I will post an answer as quickly as possible—often within 24 hours.

Dr Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at, or post below to ask her a question.


24 thoughts on “Ask Philippa: 2014 Pre-season Edition

  1. Hi Phillippa, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!
    Any dates set yet for your Reprises and Rehearsals? Sounds like a great addition to the audience enrichment programs. Always like to hear your insights of the plays and learn more about what the season and plays hold for us. Keep us posted. Thanks for all of your work and enthusiasm. Best to all the folks there. Nancy.

  2. Hello Nancy,
    The minute we set a date, I will post it here. It will be soon, though – before the season starts. Also, on April 3nd I’ll be talking at Swan Books about the upcoming season. It would be lovely to see you there.

  3. Philippa

    This is in regard to the 40th anniversary.

    It seems that Bernard Taper can talk about things in long term memory just not short term. If you would like to talk with him, please let me know.

    Are you going to try to talk with Daikin Matthews?

    Best regards,

    • I’d love both, Patrick. Do you think we could meet together with Bernard? And Dakin too if you have time. thanks so much,

  4. Phillipa,
    are you a lover of horses?
    i recently got RAISIN dvd from library. not knowing it was on the menu. smashing play. smashing Diana Sands and that character so unexpected. and then it turns out Hansberry’s a lesbian and Beneatha suddenly stands out as a rarity on so many levels!
    i’m sure you have all sorts of exciting interventions planned to celebrate the presentation of this triple threat: great American play, black, woman, lesbian, genius — quadruple? quintuple? i’m losing count!
    what’s the best way to remain informed of what Cal Shakes is up to vis-a-vis ARITS?
    i recently caught 12th Night at its Civicore opening, an under-the-radar event that was such a rich experience. (i wrote about it at the above address.)
    have a smashing season!
    E B

  5. Hello Erin,

    It is so lovely to get this enthusiastic response about both TN and Raisin. There is on our web site a blog piece I wrote on twinning.
    And here is a little piece I’e just written to whet audience’s appetites about Raisin.
    best wishes


    What happens to a dream deferred?’ asks poet Langsdon Hughes in HARLEM. ‘Does it dry up 
like a raisin in the sun?’ Hughes, an African American, wrote this poem in 1951, and six years later it would be memorialized in the first play by a black woman to be performed on Broadway. Twenty-seven year-old Lorraine Hansberry drew on her own family’s experience to form the premise of A Raisin in the Sun. In 1938, when she was 8 years old, her father, a successful real estate agent, bought a house in the Washington Park Subdivision of the South Side of Chicago, violating a covenant that restricted blacks from purchasing or leasing land in that neighborhood. Despite violent attacks by white neighbors, the family refused to move out until a court ordered them to do so. But even so, the case made it to the Supreme Court, which made the somewhat ambiguous ruling that since 46 % of the Hansberry family’s new white neighborhood did not agree with racial segregation, citizens had the legal right to challenge the covenant again.

    For me, it’s not just this life-event that makes a fascinating backdrop to Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun: it’s also the ambiguity or lack of closure that an eight-year-old girl most likely ingested from her family’s experience. To be driven out of a neighborhood, but told that the covenant could be challenged again, gives a very mixed message, to say the least. How does a child cope with this ambiguity, and the stress it caused to her parents, simultaneously told that they had a right – and they had no right – to make a claim to the house that they had bought? Twenty years later, she writes a play about it. A Raisin in the Sun is not just about the cruel realities of racial segregation; it’s about the connections we humans make between ourselves and our houses; about money, both a golden key and a mere slip of paper; about manhood, about femininity, and who gets to say what these qualities are; about education and possibility. It’s also about the American Dream, that post-war fantasy pursued by families half-broken by the second world war, who thrust forward their children as their dreams. (Arthur Miller critiqued this dream with brutal poignancy in Death of a Salesman, written in 1949, just two years before Hughes wrote Harlem and eight years before Hansberry wrote Raisin). And Hansberry’s play is also about the dreams that dry up, perhaps to be replaced by others that re-light a sputtering candle of hope. Can the flame stay alive? Can it light the way forward?

  6. Ms. Philippa Kelly,
    My name is Sophia, and my partner is Samantha. We are high school students at Alhambra High in Martinez. We have started a small production company called Bothered Fox in the last six months. We have just finished writing our first short film, and would like to know if we could use the Cal Shakes Theater for a scene in our short film. Please email us at the email attached to let us know if this is possible and if you are the person we need approval from.
    Thank you, and we hope to hear from you soon.

  7. Greetings,
    I am considering bringing my two middle-school granddaughters to Raisin in the Sun (their first CalShakes performance). Their mother is concerned with “language” in the show. We completely understand that racism, poverty and prejudice are themes in the play and that is not a concern. We believe those are great themes to address and build dialogue…so thank you. Is there profanity or “adult” language in the performance?

  8. Hello Bernard,

    No, there’s no profanity or ‘adult language’ in the script. There is an allusion to Ruth’s contemplation about having an abortion, but no mention of anything specifically in that regard. I feel 100 percent secure that if you bring your grandchildren, you will introduce them to a play that will make them really feel and understand and embrace a part of this country’s history – a part of history that every American child should know about. Interestingly, Bernard, I’m half-way through writing an article for a British journal about similar abuses of people of color in my own country, Australia. I’m using a contemporary production of King Lear – which was set in 2013 in Australia’s indigenous land, mixing Shakespeare’s language with with many indigenous dialects – to ask the question: how can we look at our history and really feel and know it? Through art. Art is one of those great mysteries of life that is, in a sense, ‘the reason’- and yet art has the capacity to go BEYOND reason to move our hearts and souls. I’m giving several grove talks for Raisin – why don’t you try to come out when I’m there? I’d love to meet your grandchildren.

  9. Dear Philippa Kelly,
    This spring semester I taught an upper-level undergraduate Shakespeare’s Tragedies course and the last play we read was King Lear. In conjunction with that play, and as the final reading of the semester, we read your 2011 book The King and I. I was pleased that I could assign them an entire book; far too often we end up teaching a single chapter from a book or a stand-alone essay, but The King and I is fairly short (about one hundred pages) and I was sure my students would find it readable and interesting–and they did.

    My students really enjoyed the book. They commented on how wonderful they found it to read something that showed someone so engaged with a Shakespeare play –and in so many different ways (through different types of teaching positions, considerations of familial relationships, Australian political upheavals). It made them think about the play in new ways, transported them from their own particularly American approach to Shakespeare, and I think it made them realize how they might be able to use Shakespeare in their own lives. It was definitely their favorite scholarly reading of the semester.

    Thank you so much for your moving and enlightening work with this play.

    Darlene Farabee
    English Department, University of South Dakota

    • Dear Darlene,
      It makes me so happy to hear this! Thank you so much for letting me know. I’ve actually just been writing a piece on Lear and indigeity in Australia and how it makes us re-think diversity – Lear goes on and on! Philippa

  10. Dear Philippa, I can’t wait to get your brilliant insights again! Can you post your grove talk and talkback dates? I want to be sure to get them right. Also, can you tell me something about the timing of Raisin in the Sun? And also why it’s being performed on both the east and west coasts this year?
    Thank you! See you in the Grove!

  11. Hi Lisa,
    My Raisin talk dates are 1 June, 7 June, 8 June and 14 June

    I think it’s an interesting coincidence that the play is on both coasts at pretty much the same time. In all the work I’ve done on it in preparing it for our audience enrichment, it just keeps hitting me as such a fabulous play – so much ‘of its time’ (right before the civil rights movement really took off) and yet also so much a play that speaks to today. Take a look at Shi Yi’s post on the cal shakes website – he really nails this in a beautiful way

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  14. Hi Philippa, Jeff and I were only sorry that we missed a lot of your pre-show talk, but the part we caught was very informative and relevant to the show, which was fabulous! We stayed for the talk back, and I have to say it was exemplary. We had good comments from the audience and you fielded them with a lot of grace and real insight. I learned so much about a play that I already knew so well. I especially liked your comment that you personally learn something from every performance or talk back. You really give people scope to ask questions or make their own observations. Bravo!! I look forward to your pre-show talks in the future.
    Susan Dunn

  15. Hello Susan, what a lovely comment to receive. The actors and I all just wanted to go on and on with the talkback yesterday – the questions were just so alive and vibrant, and you helped make it so.

  16. Dear Philippa,
    Thank you for an excellent and thought-provoking preface yesterday. I was struck by the way that most of their dreams were in conflict with someone else’s dream. Walter feels that if Lena or Beneatha get their dream, he won’t get his. Lena’s dream is in direct conflict with Lindner’s dream. And it was interesting to see that everyone feels free to deny someone else’s dream in order to attain theirs.

    You asked whether the play could be placed in another time period, and I must say that I really don’t know. There are some things about it that make more sense in the context of the 50’s. For example, Beneatha’s dressing in Nigerian clothing would be radical and shocking back in the 50’s but doesn’t have the same punch in the 70’s or later. And the audiences in the 50’s may have been more uneasy with Joseph’s character than we are today. But these things may have lost their power to today’s audience anyway, regardless of when the play is set. On the other hand, Lorraine Hansbury set her play in the present day and expected audiences to see themselves in it, rather than people distanced by time. It is more comfortable for us to look back even to our recent past than to see ourselves as we are today.

    Every production I have seen was set in the 50’s, and still Raisin always makes me uncomfortable. I think Lorraine Hansbury meant for us to be uncomfortable. All of us. She doesn’t let anyone, of any race, off the hook. Hansbury was all about instigating social change through her writing, and I wonder to what extent she, and others like her, influenced the civil rights movement that followed shortly after. I’ve been enjoying The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window up at OSF, and it is fascinating to see both of these plays in the same week.

  17. Jim, this is a very thought-provoking comment. Firstly, it reminds me of one of the keys to dramaturgy – noticing the features that pertain to a certain period. As you mention, the costume Beneatha wears, or even the roach-killer machine which today would bring up many more fears of carcinogens – in a way this machine would, today, make the awfulness of the apartment stand out even more (i.e. it’s better to use a carcinogen than suffer the roaches.) Lorraine Hansberry was so remarkable in that she made not just a play, but a play whose architecture was both delicate and robust, able to be calibrated to us today and yet to have all its own raw humor and compassion that come from her own 1950s circumstances.

    The play speaks in a special way to all of us – to me personally because a lot of my work (as in THE KING AND I) has been about abandonment and the effects of people alienating each other via exclusionary practices. Really, about the effects of trauma – what we might call unintegrated experience. I think that Hansberry wrote her play as a way of finding a resting place for a traumatic childhood experience. The specifics are, as she says, so important – yet, as she also says, ‘the universal is in [and emerges through] the specific.’ There is an extraordinary and unique power that human beings have to cause each other trauma, the very thing that they themselves flee from. Everyone can understand this. Not everyone gets the chance to express it. How amazing to see a play that expresses this so universally, but which never lets go of the specifics.

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