How inescapable is “A Raisin in the Sun”? It’s not actually being performed as part of the bold two-play “Raisin Cycle” beginning Wednesday at Baltimore’s Center Stage, but Lorraine Hansberry’s trailblazing 1959 drama — the first Broadway play by a black woman and a cornerstone of American theater — casts a long, formidable shadow.
The two plays being produced in Baltimore are Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer-winning “Clybourne Park” and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s new “Beneatha’s Place.” The dramatists take liberties with Hansberry similar to those that adaptors have often taken with the Greeks or Shakespeare. Both works build on the “Raisin” plot and characters and bring the action up to the minute, with Kwei-Armah’s play responding to Norris’s wildly popular update on race in America.
Actress Jessica Frances Dukes says the project is shaping up “almost like a race workshop.”
Derrick Sanders is directing both dramas in this cycle, and although he insists that audiences won’t have to read (or reread) “Raisin” to keep up, he adds, “If you do know the details, it’s a whole ’nother ride.”
For several key players in this cycle, Hansberry’s details are bone-deep.
In high school, Sanders played Walter Lee, the frustrated husband-father-son in “Raisin” who wants to use the insurance money from his father’s recent death to open his own business (a liquor store, which his God-fearing mother disapproves of).
And Dukes, who has the title role in “Beneatha’s Place,” played Beneatha last year in “Raisin” at the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y.
“I wanted to play her since I was 8 years old,” Dukes says of Walter Lee’s free-thinking little sister. “She was so progressive.”
Kwei-Armah grew up as the son of Caribbean immigrants in London, and his “Raisin” connection seems almost as hard-wired as Dukes’s. “The notion of working your way up is as germane to us as it is to the American dream,” says the playwright, who first read “Raisin” as a teenager.
“Trespassing” is the word Kwei-Armah uses to describe Norris’s cheeky “Clybourne Park” (let the record show that Norris is white) and his own “Beneatha’s Place.” (Perhaps the record should also note that both Hansberry adaptors are men.)
“Who has the right to speak?” muses Kwei-Armah, a former British television actor and a playwright who is wrapping up his second season as Center Stage’s artistic director.
“Here I am,” Kwei-Armah says, “a black British playwright, talking about two plays that quintessentially come out of the American experience. Do I have a right to enter into that world? I don’t know. Does Bruce have a right to enter into the world of commentary, of being the inheritor of Lorraine Hansberry’s story?”
Kwei-Armah first saw “Clybourne Park” several years ago at London’s Royal Court Theatre. By intermission, Kwei-Armah and a half-dozen other black patrons, all strangers, were debating at the bar. Most of them (not Kwei-Armah) were inclined to walk out. A major issue: the implication that neighborhoods are destroyed by blacks and restored by whites.
The first act of “Clybourne” is set in the house that the Youngers, the struggling South Side Chicago black family in “Raisin,” are buying in an all-white neighborhood as the owners pack up to leave. The prickly and uproarious second act reverses field: A black couple is moving out as the now-derelict area is being gentrified, and a white couple is moving in.
Kwei-Armah is taking Norris’s “Clybourne” footprint – the same number of actors, and the same racial breakdown – but moving “Raisin” in radically different directions. The first act follows Beneatha, the college-age daughter in “Raisin,” and her African beau, Asagai, to Nigeria during its 1960 liberation from the United Kingdom. The second act is set in present-day California, with Beneatha as an academic dean. As in “Clybourne,” culture and ownership are much debated.
There has always been an element of pushback against Hansberry’s play, still well known because of the 1961 film that starred Sidney Poitier and most of the original stage cast. Some viewed it as too sentimental, too easy on the white Broadway audience. “Raisin” was brutally mocked by writer-director George C. Wolfe as “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” in his 1986 satire “The Colored Museum.”
But Kwei-Armah thinks “Raisin” made a comeback in the popular imagination with the 2004 Broadway revival headlined by Sean “Diddy” Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald. He also suggests that Hansberry and the 1950s writers are too often passed over in what he calls the “black diasporic oeuvre” that highlights the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920, then skips to the Civil Right 1960s and Black Power 1970s.
Along with white racism, “Raisin” explored issues of marriage and career and the first flickers of a rising pan–Africanism, often through Hansberry’s alter ego, Beneatha. It even grappled with the symbolic power of black women’s hair, “A debate that’s live today,” Kwei-Armah says.
“If Lorraine was like that in 1959,” Dukes says of Hansberry, who died of cancer at 34, only six years after “Raisin” premiered, “who knows what she would have been today?”
“We’re always saying we’re the most radical generation, that we’re saying something new,” Kwei-Armah says. “She was writing things and thinking things that later generations of black radicals would go on to articulate as if it were their own. That’s a long way round of saying that ‘Raisin’ is just one of the reasons I find myself fascinated by Lorraine.”
“Clybourne Park,” which added Best Play trophies from Broadway’s Tony awards and London’s Olivier Awards to Norris’s collection, has been a coast-to-coast hit in U.S. regional theaters. Separate stands at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, in 2010 and 2011, set box office records for that Washington troupe.
“A brilliant catalyst for debate,” Kwei-Armah says of Norris’s work. “It is everything we want playwriting to be.” He also says Norris has been “lovely” about the cycle idea.
Kwei-Armah was aware that some theaters were programming “Raisin” and “Clybourne” together, but he reasoned: “If you have a playwright in the house, why do what everybody else is doing? We can maybe push the debate forward.”
Running in repertory was always the idea, the better to trigger a conversation between the works. Performances will alternate into June; audiences can catch the shows back-to-back on selected Saturdays and Sundays.
The cycle’s eight actors are cast in both “Clybourne” (which begins Wednesday) and “Beneatha” (which opens May 9). Kwei-Armah says he’s still rewriting: “I write up until the director says, ‘I can take no more.’ I’ll write up until the second-to-last preview.”
Sanders contends that the theater should be a platform to knock ideas back and forth. If not, he asks, “then what use are we, really?” He calls “Beneatha’s Place” a “response play,” a term that suggests yet another aspect of the Hansberry shadow: In the 1960s, Hansberry’s realistic “Les Blancs” was a response to Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist “The Blacks.”
“I’m actually wanting to have a conversation with the perception that we can say this subconsciously, or even subliminally, and it not be debated,” Kwei-Armah says of what he labels certain “implications” in “Clybourne Park.” “That was the impulse for writing ‘Beneatha.’ ”
“Clybourne Park,” by Bruce Norris. Wednesday through June 16.
“Beneatha’s Place,” by Kwame Kwei-Armah. May 9-June 16. At Center Stage, 700 North Calvert St., Baltimore. Call 410-332-0033 or visit centerstage.org.