“There’s something really elegant about our plays framing ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ ” says playwright Lydia Diamond.
The frame is taking shape at Arena Stage with three plays by black women: Jacqueline E. Lawton’s brand-new CIA thriller “Intelligence,” Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking “Raisin,” and Diamond’s race-science-politics drama “Smart People,” which appeared off-Broadway last year with Mahershala Ali.
The cluster creates a triptych of black writers defying conventions, even if Arena is producing — for the first time in its long history — the Hansberry play that now seems as obvious as “Death of a Salesman.” The saga about a black family thinking of moving into a white neighborhood was the first play on Broadway by a black woman when it opened in 1959. When Hansberry died in 1965 of pancreatic cancer she was only 34; her creativity was in high gear with “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” featuring a gallery of liberal Bohemians orbiting around a disaffected Jewish intellectual.
It was not the “Raisin” follow-up that 1960s audiences expected.
But time is finally catching up with Hansberry, who is having a great decade:
2010: Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park,” a race-fueled sequel to “Raisin,” became a hit for troupes around the country. In 2011, it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
2013: Baltimore Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah wrote a reply to Norris in “Beneatha’s Place,” titled for the progressive sister of Walter Lee Younger, the angry dreamer in “Raisin.”
2014: “Raisin” got its second Broadway revival in a decade, this time with Denzel Washington as Walter Lee and Sophie Okonedo as his wife, Ruth. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival revived “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.”
2016: “Sidney Brustein” made a splash at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, with Tribune critic Chris Jones hailing Hansberry as “The greatest dramatic writer ever to emerge from Chicago” and calling the long-neglected play “a masterpiece lost in plain sight.”
At the same time in London, South African writer-director Yael Farber — whose dazzling 2015 “Salome” adaptation was a feather in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s cap — revived Hansberry’s “Les Blancs,” a searing account of about Western colonialism in 1960s Africa. “Les Blancs” was unfinished when Hansberry died, but her husband, Robert Nemiroff, pieced it together for a brief Broadway run in 1970 with James Earl Jones and Earle Hyman.
Like Hansberry, Diamond, 47, and Lawton, 39, have written about the black middle class. “Lydia, thank you for ‘Stick Fly,’ ” Lawton says of Diamond’s comedy of modern manners that played Arena Stage in 2010 and made it to Broadway the next year. (The writers spoke by phone from their current home towns during a conference call: Diamond in Chicago, Lawton in Chapel Hill, N.C.) Both women grew up in Texas, love old Hollywood films and have written plays with scientific characters.
Q: When did you first discover “A Raisin in the Sun”?
A: Lawton: My mother had it on her shelf, and she said, “Read this play.” I was 9.
Diamond: In high school I did debating, and also drama and humorous interpretation. You’d go around the state in competition. No one seemed to know a playwright who was a person of color they could recommend to me. Finally, someone suggested “Raisin.” I did the Beneatha monologue about how she wanted to be a doctor.
Q: When did you first see it on stage?
A: Diamond: My first was at the Huntington Theatre in Boston a few seasons ago. I was shocked watching it, thinking how have I never seen a production. It’s a pretty perfect play.
Lawton: I was understudying Mama in a 2003 university production. I play trumpet, and the director wanted a musical interlude as an introduction, so I played that. Then I would go watch the play. I still have not seen a professional production.
Diamond: I would identify with it as an African American woman before I would as an actor. It’s just affirming. It’s beautiful literature. And there was not a character like Beneatha. There just wasn’t.
Lawton: I remember the conversations my father had with my brother about how to behave with the police. It wasn’t the same conversation he was having with me and my sister. It made me realize I have to love my brother differently. This play taught me that. There are dreams that black people have that are different, and there is an entire world around them saying they’re not good enough, strong enough, capable enough, smart enough.
Diamond: I didn’t know it that way. I grew up with single mother, no siblings, but now I have a black son, and it shattered me. I went three times. I just would weep.
Q: Jacqueline, what sparked “Intelligence”?
A: Lawton: I went back to 2003, specifically when Bush went into Iraq — which, as the daughter and sister of veterans, I have never gotten over. I didn’t think it was fair to use the emotional landscape of 9/11 to invade that country. I wanted to write about the impact on the Iraqi people and our culpability in it, because we didn’t get loud enough in objecting to that war. That led me to write this 90-minute political thriller that is really a protest piece demanding that our country be more forthright.
Q: Washington must be the best place for this to premiere, or the worst. What’s it been like?
A: Lawton: Exhilarating, because it’s selling out every night. My fear was knowing there’s already been a book and a movie, and worrying whether people want to see this. The answer is a resounding yes. It’s fascinating to capture this moment that still has a profound impact on the way we think about intelligence. And the role politics can play is incredibly dangerous.
Q: Lydia, what was the impetus for “Smart People”?
Diamond: I wanted to write a play about race. I had always done this interesting dance of acknowledging that my aesthetic is the dynamic of race, class, sex and gender. But I would always say that apologetically. I would almost tactically say, “This is about family, an all-inclusive play,” so people wouldn’t be intimidated. So with this one I was like, No. It took eight years because while I was writing it Obama ran and won, and the way we talked about race changed dramatically.
Q: Like “Intelligence,” the political landscape is central to “Smart People,” yes?
Diamond: I’ve now been having productions for five or six years, and readings and discussions before that, and always we say, “There couldn’t be a more critical moment to have this discussion.” And every time, it’s more relevant. The last scene is the day of the Obama inauguration. But it’s not about the election. It’s about race.
Q: The 1960s were changing fast, too. Are “Les Blancs” and “Sidney Brustein” actually closer in topic and in spirit to what you write than “Raisin” is?
A: Diamond: I think so. People didn’t know what she was doing with “Sidney Brustein.” I don’t know how much has changed.
Lawton: It’s interesting: What are black women playwrights expected to write?
Lawton: In every way, “Raisin” fits that expectation. It’s a black family trying to improve themselves and move into a white neighborhood, and they encounter racism. Critics and audiences know how to respond to that. The others, no one knows how to respond. It’s the same with “Intelligence”: “Oh, what makes you interested in writing about the intelligence community?” Well, my father and grandfather were in military intelligence. But why is national security not a matter for black playwrights to address?
Diamond: Also implicit in the question is “How are you able?” I know that early in my writing, people would question the authenticity of my characters because they had only been shown plays like “Raisin.” They didn’t know the long stories and histories of articulate, sometimes frivolous, well-spoken black people. We didn’t exist. So there was a mistrust.
Lawton: I find Hansberry to be such a powerful voice: All of her work should be celebrated, yet there’s a limit because of what black women are expected to write. And we’re still dealing with that.
Intelligence, by Jacqueline E. Lawton. Through April 9 in the Kogod Cradle. Tickets: $40-$118.
A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry. Through May 7 in the Fichandler. Tickets: $40-$111.
Smart People, by Lydia Diamond. April 14-May 21 in the Kreeger Theater. Tickets: $40-$111. Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.