Ask Philippa: “Raisin in the Sun” edition

Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes, invites your questions about A Raisin in the Sun, which runs May 21–June 15. Tickets on sale now.

(L to R) Ryan Nicole Peters as Ruth and Marcus Henderson as Walter in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of A RAISIN IN THE SUN, directed by Patricia McGregor; photo by Kevin Berne.

We’re starting off the season with 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).

Are you going to see our production of A Raisin in the Sun?  Do you have questions or comments about the production’s cast, themes, creative choices, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

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 pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

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21 Responses to Ask Philippa: “Raisin in the Sun” edition

  1. Nancy Fickbohm says:

    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.

    • 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.

  2. Erin Blackwell says:

    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 this address.)
    have a smashing season!
    E B

    • 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
      Philippa

      A DREAM DEFERRED

      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?

  3. shelly says:

    When will Cal Shakes post casting for Raisin in the Sun?

  4. Bernard Boudreaux says:

    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?

    • Philippa Kelly says:

      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.
      Philippa

  5. Lisa says:

    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!

    • 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.

  6. Susan Dunn says:

    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.
    Best,
    Susan Dunn

    • 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.

  7. Jim says:

    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.

    • 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.

  8. Alan Cunningham says:

    As you know, Philippa, Ellen and I saw this magnificent production on Sunday, June 8 — as fine a piece of theater as one could see in New York, London or anywhere. The audience responded with a resounding standing ovation, then the talk-back saw every member of the cast coming forth with great comments — and 10-year-old Zion Richardson, who plays Travis Younger, was right there with lots to say. However, as you fed back to us, this talk-back was tame compared with that of the previous Sunday, variously described as “explosive” and “incendiary.” You seemed almost disappointed that our crowd merely heaped praise on this massively talented cast rather than setting off explosions. Can you give us a little idea of how the fireworks played out at the previous talk-back? I wish there were video replays of these things.

    • philippa kelly says:

      Hello Alan,

      The main thing about last Sunday was that (uncharacteristically for our talkbacks) it took a while to warm up. The week before, I had begun (before the actors came out) by talking about how I was glad that Patricia had retained the setting of the play in the 1950s because the Civil Rights movement was a crucial follow-up to this play. One person in the audience then responded that the play is just as relevant today, and does not indeed NEED the civil rights movement to be relevant: that its strength is in its universaltiy. She also said, ‘Look at you. You are a white woman. How can you know about the relvance of this play today?’ I responded that all these things are, indeed, true: 1) that I am an Australian, and cannot hope or claim to know the experience that she can own much more immediately; 2) that the play could indeed take place in Oakland today; and that 3) Lorraine Hansberry argued very specifically that she did NOT want this play to speak to universal experience BEFORE it spoke to the specifics of her people, from this particular place, in this particular time. ‘The universal is in the specific,’ she said, not the other way around. So this then began an unbelievably interactive session, where we had literally to be signalled 3 times to pack up and leave. It was fantastic. In last Sunday’s talkback we were only just beginning to get going when we had to pack up.

  9. Philippa Kelly says:

    Hello. Not that it’s that incredible, but we share identical names :)
    I find it fascinating because it’s such an unusual name in the US.

    • philippa kelly says:

      so you must be Philippa! I’d love to meet you sometime. ‘Philippa’ is a common name in England (where I was born) and Australia (where I grew up)

  10. Tom Rankin says:

    Hello, Philippa,

    My sister Ann and I, and our friend Pierre, very much appreciated your insightful and informative Grove Talk before the June 8 performance. And the performance itself was smashing!

    I wanted to follow up on a question I raised at the Grove Talk, about Lorraine Hansberry’s stage direction near the end of A Raisin in the Sun when Walter has just turned down Lindner’s offer of money if the family will not move into Clybourne Park. The stage direction describes “…the general bustling of the family, who are deliberately trying to ignore the nobility of the past moment.” I was puzzled as to why they would ignore it.

    But as a spectator, my own experience of watching that moment was quite different from that of reading the stage direction in the script. Instead of feeling that the family had ignored Walter’s magnificence at that time, I felt that until he made his decision the family had been stopped in its tracks; but the instant he refused Lindner’s offer they were free once again to go the direction they were going. So that, far from ignoring the nobility of the moment, the family’s “general bustling” was a nonverbal acknowledgment of and response to what Walter had done. Perhaps, like Langston Hughes’s candle, he had “lighted the way forward.”

    Your reframing of my Grove Talk question was brilliant! You suggested asking how the actors experienced that moment in the action of the play. Well, I wish I had asked that question during the Meet the Artists after the play; and I wonder if there is still time to get the views of least some of the cast. How did the actors, in their characters, experience those moments in the action at the end of the play – Walter’s refusal and the “bustling” right afterward?

  11. philippa kelly says:

    Dear Tom,

    In regard to your citing of the stage direction: that everyone bustles around, deliberately trying to ignore the nobility of the past moment. I’m thinking of two things: 1) I think they have been transfixed, as you say, by Walter’s gesture. (Is it a catharsis, or is it a gathering-up of all the energy he has formerly put out in anger – gathering itinto this moment of integrated self-realization?) The whole family is mesmerized, transfixed, bowled over (including Walter himself.) Then they all start running around to do the move, because the moving people are here, they cost money, and things have to go. But I wonder – if they remained transfixed by the moment and did not ignore it ‘deliberately’, would they perhaps lose the name of action? Action opposes thought – and if you are caught in contemplation of the moment, you can’t spring into action. Or would they lose the courage to go if they did not immediately spring into action and ignore Walter’s moment? It is a huge unknown that they are going to: the new area, the money side of things, the relocation of their dreams… 2) It is the PLANT that Mama rushes to get when they all deliberately ignore Walter’s past moment. This is very interesting. All through the play, the plant has been something that Mama has nurtured, aligning it with her stunted and aspiring children, her angry children, her needy children. So when Walter has his moment in the sun here, the first thing Mama rushes for is the PLANT. I’ll ask the actors if any of them wants to comment. Thank you Tom, for thsi great question.

    • philippa kelly says:

      PS Tom,
      I’m already regretting the stuff I put in about ‘lose the name of action’, etc: this language sort-of universalizes the moment by laying Hamlet over the top – exactly what Lorraine DIDN’T want us to do! I wish I could un-post and re-write: which reminds me: how many times, in this life, do we humans wish we could un-say? But once spoken, our words are out there, being dealt with by someone else. I’ve written the actors and will post whatever they might reply. Philippa

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