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Pasadena hosts Lorraine Hansberry classic, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’

'Raisin explores courage, the power of hope, the limits of personal agency, and the stressors of our environment that push us towards action'

Compton Herald | A Raisin in the Sun
Ben Cain (left, playing Walter Lee Younger) and director Gregg T. Daniel during rehearsal for A Raisin in the Sun. Photo by Brian Feinzimer for A Noise Within Theatre Company.

Timeless theatrical hit directed by Gregg T. Daniel; A Raisin in the Sun runs Feb. 25 to April 8 at A Noise Within

PASADENA – In pre-civil rights America, an unexpected windfall offers a life-changing option for the Youngers, an African-American family living in a cramped Chicago apartment. They struggle with competing dreams and racial intolerance in Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal work.

Six decades after its inspired penning, Hansberry’s groundbreaking work still reverberates in a racially intolerant American society crying for healing self-introspection.

A Noise Within presents A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Gregg T. Daniel, the sixth production of its 26th season performing Feb. 25 to April 8.

Daniel said, “I am in awe of the sheer courage, imagination, and intelligence it took to write Raisin — how the mind of a 29-year-old ‘Negro’ playwright was driven to confront issues of Pan Africanism, feminism, and economic, gender, and racial equality in such an eloquent and powerful manner.”

He continues, “Here we are, six decades later, and the play still speaks to us because it appears that intolerance, bigotry, and racial prejudice has once again found a hideous, contemporary voice in the American consciousness.”

A Noise Within co-producing Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott said, “A Raisin in the Sun was the breakout hit of our 2016 Resident Artist reading festival; we are excited to offer a full production of one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, with Gregg at the helm.”

Geoff Elliott continues: “All season we’ve explored the theme of ‘Entertaining Courage.’ Raisin explores courage, the power of hope, the limits of personal agency, and the stressors of our environment that push us towards action.”

A Raisin in the Sun runs from Feb. 25-April 8.

Thursday, March 15, from 6-7 p.m., A Noise Within hosts a pre-performance conversation with Mamie Hansberry, sister of the late Lorraine. The talk is part of the Charles Reese Experience and the Jackie Robinson Humanities and Arts Lecture Series, presented in conjunction with the A Noise Within Symposium Series.

Operating in a state-of-the-art theatre complex in East Pasadena, A Noise Within annually produces seven mainstage productions. It is a cultural and artistic mainstay in the San Gabriel Valley and is the largest employer of local Equity Actors in Los Angeles County.

The cast of Raisin in the Sun includes Ben Cain as Walter Lee Younger, Toya Turner as Ruth Younger, Amir Abdullah as Joseph Asagai, Rosney Mauger as Bobo, Bert Emmett as Karl Linder, Keith Walker as George Murchison, Saundra McClain as Lena Younger, Sarah Hollis as Beneatha Younger, and Sam Christian as Travis Younger.

Directed by Gregg T. Daniel, Scenic Design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, Costume Design by Garry Lennon, Lighting Design by Stacy McKenney Norr, Sound Design by Jeff Gardner, and Choreography by Joyce Guy. Stage Manager is Gabrielle J. Bruno, Assistant Stage Manager is Canelle Irmas and the Assistant Director is Samantha Kofford.

Legacy of A Raisin in the Sun

According to American Theatre magazine, Raisin is one of the ten most produced plays of this current theater season.

When the play debuted in New York in 1959 – the first play written by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway, as well as the first with a Black director (Lloyd Richards) – Hansberry herself noted that the play introduced details of Black life to the overwhelmingly White Broadway audiences. At the same time, director Richards observed that it was the first play to which large numbers of Black people were drawn.

The work is notable for its insightful and sensitive depiction of an African American family at a time when the impact of “Jim Crow” laws and the “Separate but Equal” doctrine were soon to be repudiated in the U.S. At that time thousands of formerly disenfranchised Blacks were hoping to grasp a piece of the American Dream.

The title comes from the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes (What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? … maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”).

Spike Lee said, “A Raisin in the Sun was a revelation to me. It’s still fresh. It is still relevant. Lorraine Hansberry was a visionary.”

In The New York Times, Frank Rich said that A Raisin in the Sun “changed American theater forever.”

Hilton Als, in The New Yorker, said, “Lorraine Hansberry was an integrationist – she knew the toll the struggle could take. Walter is a deeply political, lonely figure. Hansberry’s radicalism lay in giving a man like him language and making him go the course.”

Ben Brantley of the 2004 Broadway revival in The New York Times, “Raisin was remarkably prescient in identifying issues that would continue to shape African-American life: Black men’s struggles for self-assertion in households dominated by strong women; the movement to separate African from American identities; Christianity as both an oppressive and redemptive power; the restlessness of women imprisoned by domesticity – all these elements come into play in Hansberry’s drama. And that’s before you get to the plot pivot in which the Younger family plans to move into a white neighborhood.”

A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway in 1959. With a cast in which all but one minor character is African-American, A Raisin in the Sun was considered a risky investment, and it took over a year for producer Philip Rose to raise enough money to launch it. There was disagreement with how it should be played, with focus on the mother or focus on the son. When the play hit New York, Sidney Poitier played it with the focus on the son and found, not only his calling, but an audience enthralled.

After touring to positive reviews, the play premiered on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959. It transferred to the Belasco Theatre on Oct. 19, 1959, and closed on June 25, 1960, after 530 total performances.

About Lorraine Hansberry

Compton Herald | Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965), African American playwright and author. Photo: Wikipedia/fair use

Lorraine Hansberry was born on the South Side of Chicago on May 19, 1930. Her father founded Lake Street Bank, one of the first banks for Blacks in Chicago, and ran a successful real estate business. Her uncle was William Leo Hansberry, a scholar of African studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Many prominent African American social and political leaders visited the Hansberry household during Hansberry’s childhood including sociology professor W.E.B. DuBois, poet Langston Hughes, actor and political activist Paul Robeson, musician Duke Ellington, and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens.

Despite their middle-class status, the Hansberrys were subject to segregation. When she was 8 years old, Hansberry’s family deliberately attempted to move into a restricted neighborhood. Restrictive covenants, in which White property owners agreed not to sell to Blacks, created a ghetto known as the “Black Belt” on Chicago’s South Side. Carl Hansberry, with the help of Harry H. Pace, president of the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company and several White realtors, secretly bought property at 413 E. 60th Street and 6140 S. Rhodes Avenue.

The family was threatened by a White mob, which threw a brick through a window, narrowly missing Lorraine. The state Supreme Court of Illinois upheld the legality of the restrictive covenant and forced the family to leave the house.

The case was then taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the decision on a legal technicality. Although the case did not argue that racially restrict covenants were unlawful, it marked the beginning of their end.

Hansberry moved to New York in 1950 to begin her career as a writer. She wrote for Paul Robeson’s Freedom, a progressive publication, which put her in contact with other literary and political mentors such as W.E.B. DuBois and Freedom editor Louis Burnham. During a protest against racial discrimination at New York University, she met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish writer who shared her political views. They married on June 20, 1953, at the Hansberrys’ home in Chicago.

In 1956, Nemiroff and Burt D’Lugoff wrote the hit song, “Cindy, Oh Cindy.” Its profits allowed Hansberry to quit working and devote herself to writing. She then began a play she called The Crystal Stair, from Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son.” She later retitled it A Raisin in the Sun from Hughes’ poem, “Harlem: A Dream Deferred.”

For A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry drew upon the lives of the working-class Black people who rented from her father and who went to school with her on Chicago’s South Side. She used members of her family as inspiration for her characters. Hansberry noted similarities between Nannie Hansberry and Mama Younger and between Carl Hansberry and Big Walter. Walter Lee, Jr. and Ruth are composites of Hansberry’s brothers, their wives, and her sister, Mamie. In an interview, Hansberry laughingly said: “Beneatha is me, eight years ago.”

Although Hansberry and Nemiroff divorced before her death, he remained dedicated to her work. As literary executor, he edited and published her three unfinished plays: Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd, and What Use Are Flowers? He also collected Hansberry’s unpublished writings, speeches, and journal entries and presented them in the autobiographical montage To Be Young, Gifted and Black. The title is taken from a speech given by Hansberry in May 1964 to winners of a United Negro Fund writing competition: “…though it be thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic, to be young, gifted and Black!”

Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, about a Jewish intellectual, ran on Broadway for 101 performances. It closed on Jan. 12, 1965, the day Hansberry died of cancer at age 35.

Tickets for A Raisin in the Sun and all the spring 2018 productions start at $25, are available online at www.anoisewithin.org and by phone by calling (626) 356-3100. A Noise Within is located on the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Sierra Madre Villa Avenue at 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107 [MAP], just north of the Madre Street exit off the 210.

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