In March, 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City, marking the first Broadway play written by an African American woman. It proved to be a landmark event. The story centers on an African American family living in southside Chicago in the 1950s dealing with their dreams, suddenly seeming within reach, thanks to the arrival of an insurance payment upon the death of the father. Each person in the family has an idea of what can be done with this windfall.
There is universality in the play’s message, but also specificity as it focuses on the members of a middle class African American family and the issues that pervade their lives, including racial segregation.
When “Raisin” opened, the New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson described the story as “a play about human beings who want, on the one hand, to preserve their family pride and, on the other hand, to break out of the poverty that seems to be their fate.”
The play became a classic, required reading in many schools, and engendered numerous productions, including a film with the original Broadway cast, including Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee; a musical version; and a very successful 25th anniversary revival at the Roundabout Theater that continued on to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where it broke box office records and was filmed for public television’s “Great Performances.” In 2004 another revival introduced Sean “P. Diddy” Combs to the Broadway stage, playing the role of Walter Lee. This last production was also televised.
Eric Ruffin is directing the first production of this classic at Crossroads Theater, which goes into previews on Thursday, April 14, opens on Saturday, April 16, and runs through Sunday, May 1. “It’s wonderful that Crossroads, the pre-eminent African American theater, has decided to tell this story. It’s time,” says Ruffin in a phone interview. In a press statement, Marshall Jones III, executive director at Crossroads, says, “It is as relevant today as it was in the 1950s, as evidenced by a changed response to the Muslim community post 9/11.”
Hansberry based the plot on the real-life experience of her own family. Her father, working with the NAACP, took their case to the Supreme Court in an effort to break the Chicago Housing Covenant that limited where “colored people” could live. “This policy was sanctioned by the city government and other institutions. The Hansberrys had managed to purchase property in an ‘all white’ area and as a result, were subjected to harassment — their home was attacked with bottles and rocks,” says director Ruffin. “I read that her mother walked around in the house with a shotgun for protection.”
The influence “Raisin in the Sun” had on Ruffin is not unlike a number of stories by other theater artists. As a youngster in high school, he was introduced to the play and performed monologues from the text. “I’m sure I butchered them. I was only 14 or 15 years old. I just remember instantly recognizing that world although I grew up in Philadelphia and the play is set in Chicago,” he says. In his school’s arts program, he had been required to read all of the plays that were termed classics in the western theater canon. “I read ‘Electra’ by Sophocles, ‘Look Back in Anger’ by John Osborne, the usual ‘great plays.’ With ‘Raisin’ I thought, ‘Hey, there’s a place for me in the world of storytelling and theater. All those characters were my family instantly.”
His heart has been in theater ever since he was in the third grade and a teacher, to channel his “rambunctiousness,” cast him as the Cheshire Cat in a school production of “Alice in Wonderland.”
Ruffin received a bachelor of fine arts from Howard University in 1988. Since he had decided that he wanted to become a theater director, he purposely chose Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, where he received a master’s in directing in 1999. “I made the choice because Hal Scott was there and also was the associate director at Crossroads. I wanted to work with him and to also work at Crossroads.”
Scott, who had directed what the Lorraine Hansberry estate had deemed the definitive production of “Raisin in the Sun,” became Ruffin’s mentor. He was also inspired by the great director Lloyd Richards who had directed the original Broadway production of “Raisin” and who had also taught at Rutgers. “These are the shoulders that I’m standing on, and I don’t want to get it wrong. The torch is passed to me. Both of them are gone, and here I am the next generation to present our classics, our stories, with integrity and heart.”
He remembers when his own father died, “it was a good five years before we could let go and sell the house that he had lived in. I remember receiving the check after we sold it, and I thought, ‘this is the man’s worth.’ Nothing else was left of my father’s life. I didn’t want to spend it. What do I spend this on? I grew up in a working class family in north Philadelphia, and, like the characters in the play, I was looking for the American dream.”
Ruffin was the first in his family to go to college and, as a father now himself, he wants his daughter to have much more than he has. As an artist and a teacher (at Howard University), “you don’t make a lot of money,” he says. He understands the stress felt by so many as the gap between the haves and have-nots grows wider every day. He knows that the problems of the 1950s still exist today. “There are pockets of poverty in America where there is no access to the American dream, and people live in a state of hopelessness. Ultimately, there is the same disfranchisement, whether you are living in south central Los Angeles, north Philadelphia, or some parts of New Brunswick. Now it’s not just an African American condition, but also for Latinos and Muslims.”
He despairs at the television programs that flaunt excesses of the wealthy and the big business executives who use any means to make money. “Enron got caught. But the Wall Street executives aren’t doing time for the dirt that they did,” he says.
Hansberry touched on many cultural problems including the materialism of the American dream. “A Walter Lee today would have the same argument: ‘It’s the takers. He who takes the most is smartest.’ In a crooked culture, why not be crooked? The message of the play is just as valid today as it ever was, if not more so,” says Ruffin.
Petronia Paley, the actress playing Mama in the Crossroads production, echoes Ruffin’s remarks. “The issues of home ownership, the generational divide, identity, self-determination, poverty, racism, sexism, the easy fix with a walk on the wild side, and the longing and belief that we can grab hold of our destiny and make a better life speak of the uniquely American experience. Immigrants from all over the world come here to live ‘the dream.’ This iconic play transcends racial boundaries and its prescience is alive and well,” she says.
Jimonn Cole, who plays the role of the Walter Lee, says that in his 16 years in the theater business, “I have never seen a production of ‘Hamlet’ that featured a black actor in the title role, and I’ve only been allowed to audition for the part once. I’m grateful to Lorraine Hansberry for understanding that black men have a world of emotions inside of them as well. Walter Lee Younger is an iconic role in the literary canon, not because of his race, but because of the scope, complexity, and universality of his life’s ambition.”
I reached out to other theater professionals to gather their thoughts on the play. In an E-mail from director/playwright Charles Randolph-Wright, he pays tribute to the effect “Raisin” had on him. Randolph-Wright is currently artist-in-residence at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and wrote his own family drama, “Blue,” which played in New York in 2001 and at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in 2003. He directed the production of Daniel Beatty’s “Through The Night,” which played at Crossroads in February, 2010, and went on to a successful run in Manhattan. He says that the play “gave me the inspiration and permission to write. Lorraine Hansberry opened the door for us [African American artists] to walk through and present a multitude of images and perspectives.”
Professional actor, teaching artist, and arts administrator Rodney Gilbert’s story pays tribute to “Raisin,” but also explains how it exemplifies challenges that still continue for the African American artist. “At the age of 10, I read in the Star Ledger about an audition for the County Cafe Theater’s next play, ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’ There was a role for the Younger family’s grandchild, Travis. I had never heard of this play or seen the movie, but I knew I could act.” He auditioned and was cast in the part. “My life was forever changed. But what I discovered after the play was over was that there were not many roles for me to audition for, or if there was a role it wasn’t being cast black. I am blessed that this play exists so that I had the chance to discover my gift. For that I am forever grateful.” Gilbert is currently directing “For Colored Girls” by Ntozache Shange at Cape May Stages. He teaches at Drew University, manages the arts education program for the City of Newark’s after-school program, and founded Yendor Productions, which produces artistic programming for underserved populations.
The title of Hansberry’s play refers to the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem:” “What happens to a dream deferred/Does it dry up/Like a raisin in the sun?” The dream is no longer deferred at Crossroads Theater, or in the lives of many African American theater artists working today. There are still challenges, but there is inspiration to meet these challenges.
“A Raisin in the Sun,” Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Preview performances Thursday and Friday, April 14 and 15; opening night, Saturday, April 16. Runs through Sunday, May 1, 3 p.m. Dramatic classic by Lorraine Hansberry focuses on a family striving to achieve the American dream. $50. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.