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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Lorraine and You: “Raisin” then and now

As many patrons and reviewers have noted, one of the fascinating aspects of A Raisin in the Sun is how resonant it is today, despite how much our society and culture has changed. Even though we live in an era of increased civil rights, systemic racism still exists—if it didn’t, the play would feel more like a historical document, and less like a contemporary commentary.

Many patrons and students have been drawing these lines between then and now. If you read Amani Morrison’s program article “Then and Now,” you saw these two eras being threaded together.

In a previous blog post, we wrote about playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s peculiar list of “likes,” “dislikes,” and “dreams”:

On April 1, 1960, Hansberry scrawled on legal pad an offbeat list of things that she liked, hated, and wanted, with a final column for what she was “bored to death with.” The fragment is unique for the window it opens on her mind and disposition; it is both sad and funny, political and personal. “My homosexuality” appears twice, as a like and a hate; “racism,” “death,” “pain,” and “cramps” are all hates, along with “what has happened to Sydney Poitier” (who had starred in the first Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun in 1959).

In that same post, we asked our patrons and fans to write their own list, reflecting on both personal and social struggles. What has changed for you in your life? What feels possible? What does not? When we reflect on these ideas–prominent themes in A Raisin in the Sun–we get a glimpse into the power of theater to reveal social struggle, history, and change.

Today, we’re posting some of the written responses we’ve gotten from our on-site Story Hub, adjacent to the cafe at the theater. As the project continues, we’ll post more of our patrons’ likes, dislikes and dreams.

 

Buy tickets for A Raisin in the Sun or learn more about the show.

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A Raisin in the Sun and Dreams Deferred

By Shi Yi

Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

-Langston Hughes

A Raisin in the Sun is about the dream of the Youngers, a black family living in South Side Chicago in the 1950s. Like any family, the Youngers’ dream is a stitched-together mosaic; as they impatiently wait for the arrival of an insurance check for ten thousand dollars, each member of the Younger clan has a slightly different dream for the money. Yet when the check actually arrives, their dreams collide. Even as the dream of each relation moves closer to reality, the family fragments. The struggle between material desires and family ideals escalates into a heavy and bittersweet drama.

Racial Segregation in Chicago in 2000

Half a century after the debut of A Raisin in the Sun, Chicago remains a segregated city; this block map is based on US Census data from 2000.

A Raisin in the Sun is about a family’s aspiration to a better life. But this is not just a story of the American Dream. This is a story of an African American Dream. This is not a story that transcends category, but a story that unfortunately transcends time. From slavery to restrictive covenants to gentrification, the form of racial inequity has changed, but its essence perpetuates in our society. A Raisin in the Sun may have been written in the 1950s, but the struggles of the Younger family can be found in neighborhoods around this theater and near where we live. Perhaps, the dreams of those families who may never make it to Cal Shakes in their life are not too different from the dream of the Youngers. I wonder what happens to their dreams deferred.

Do [they] dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

 

 

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Life Interrupted

By Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

On the final day of a trip I recently made to Australia, I sat with my sister-in-law, reading from one of the last diary entries that my brother wrote before his death in a mountain-climbing accident three and a half years ago. In his almost indecipherable backhand, and in between lists of equipment, two-or-three-word observations on the climate in the mountains where he was, and reminders of appointments to be made or kept on his return, John wrote a cryptic note to himself: “Enjoy new challenges. All those years at MSJ and ALLCO not for nothing.” My brother had been a high-flying lawyer for the above two firms: a wealthy man who, in his late forties, decided that he wanted to quit corporate law and devote himself to improving the lives of young people who had not had the advantages his own children enjoyed. Within six months of this decision he was dead, the years of unfulfilled promise stretching before him as a road mapped out for others, and not himself, to travel on.

As I read John’s final diary entry—and knowing how I feel about him (gone/not gone, beautiful/wasted)—I was of course, as is every person who grieves a loved one, reminded of my feelings about others who’ve passed through this inescapable human gate; in this case, Lorraine Hansberry.

Lorraine_Hansberry

A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry

In 1959, at the age of 29, Lorraine wrote to her mother in anticipation of the Broadway debut of A Raisin in the Sun:

…it is a play that tells the truth about people, Negroes and life and I think it will help a lot of people to understand how we are just as complicated as they are—and just as mixed up—but above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks—people who are the very essence of human dignity. That is what, after all the laughter and tears, the play is supposed to say. I hope it will make you proud. See you soon. Love to all.

The period in which Lorraine wrote this letter to her mother was, she said, “one of the most affirmative periods in history”— a period of upcoming revolution—to which “Walter Lee Younger and his family are tied…whether they have consciousness about it or not.”

Not only did Lorraine go on to open a play on Broadway that had an initial run of 530 performances, but she was also the first black playwright and the youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award. Her play—the play you will see here at Cal Shakes—helped to usher in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which would change race relations in America forever. Looking back on her play just before her death in 1964, she wrote in a letter to the New York Times:

25 years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation’s ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile “white neighborhood” in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house… My memories of this “correct” way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school.

Through A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine found her own way to fight, through a war waged with words. She brought the Younger family out of the shadows of Chicago’s South side and imagined for them a different life on a different side of town; absorbing white Broadway audiences within this particular family’s struggles, compelling them to care about, and feel with, a segment of the population that had heretofore been largely faceless to them, visible for the most part only as domestic workers, chauffeurs, yardmen.

Lorraine was initially applauded by her white Broadway audiences for creating a family of “everymans”; but no, Lorraine stated in a rebuke to her enthusiastic reviewers: these were not everymen. These were the Youngers:

 What [reviewers] are trying to say is something very good; that they believe the characters transcend category. I believe that one of the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific. Universality, I think, emerges from truthful identity of what is…. [This family] is specifically South Side Chicago. That kind of care, that kind of attention to detail, to the extent that people accept them and believe them, to the extent that they can become anybody.  [This] is definitely a Negro play before it is anything else.

Perhaps each individual is in some sense an everyman; but every “everyman” is also, in a very real sense, an individual; this is what Lorraine Hansberry believed, and she herself endures as more “individual” than most. Amongst the remnants of Lorraine’s life have flourished a field born of promises: the promise she foresaw in the decade ahead, a promise that the Youngers would not themselves fulfill because this was the 1950s, before the civil rights movement had taken full swing. And, more poignantly still, there was the promise of Lorraine‘s brilliant talent, beckoning toward future works, cut off by her cancer before these works could be written. Who knows what she’d have gone on to do? But what she did do in her brief life was amazing.

To learn more about Cal Shakes’ summer production of A Raisin in the Sun and buy tickets, click here.

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 on the ASK PHILIPPA blog to ask her a question.

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

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