A theater troupe Magnolia Arts Center is bringing “A Raisin in the Sun” to Eastern North Carolina. The play, set in the 1950’s focuses on an African American family living in Chicago that suddenly acquires a large sum of money, and purchases a home in a white neighborhood. Lee Jenkins spoke with members of the cast and crew, and has this sneak peek of the production, which begins its run in Greenville next week.
“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?”
So goes Danny Glover’s rendition of one of the most famous poems in African American culture, Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred,” and from that poem comes the title of one of the most famous plays of that same culture, Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” Soon, “Raisin” will open right here in Eastern North Carolina, thanks to Greenville’s Magnolia Performing Arts Center.
RUTH: Mama, there ain’t no colored people living in Clyborn Park.
MAMA: Well, there’s gonna be some now.
WALTER: So, that’s the peace and comfort you went out and bought for us today?
According to director, Janice Schreiber, the play focuses on the lives of a black Chicago family after they receive 10,000 dollars from their deceased father’s insurance, and the effect that money has on their ambitions and dreams. Keep in mind, this is the early 1950’s, and that kind of money would be worth around 70,000 dollars today.
“This family is looking for their place in this world, and they struggle, really, to get there and it really happens to the majority of the characters in the play.”
But there’s more to it than just the story of this family.
“There is so much going on, and it’s just not their survival. It has many controversial issues that are discussed, whether it be a woman who’s trying to make a decision about whether or not she’s going to have her child. It also brings up religious issues.”
WALTER: No, I don’t want no coffee; I don’t want nothin’ hot to drink. Why you always tryin’ to give me somethin’ to eat?
RUTH: What else can I give you, Walter Lee Younger?
Ja’Maul Johnson, who plays the leading role of Walter, says “Raisin” touched a personal chord for him.
“Any role that you take on, if you’re going to do it well, you’re going to try to take on some aspect of that character, part of his good aspect. I mean, he looks at his family and he wants better for his family. I try to learn from his mistakes to better my life itself, to make sure that I’m looking at my family and seeing that they’re what’s important to me.”
This is the largest role Ja’Maul has played out of all the thirty-some productions he’s been in, and it is easily one of the most demanding and powerful parts he has ever played.
“It’s a lot. I spend most of my time, even outside of rehearsal, studying lines, making sure I know. Most, I guess, emotional language of a character I’ve ever had.”
MAMA: My, those steps gettin’ longer and longer…
Veteran actress JoAnn Williams, who plays the role of Lena “Mama” Younger, the traditional head of the household, agrees: these are demanding roles, and the play’s status as a classic only reinforces the notion.
“She’s a very multi-dimensional character, and because “Raisin in the Sun” is also an iconic play in itself. If I could draw a comparison, I would say it’s sort of like a Tennessee Williams play where everybody wants to play Blanche in “Street Car.” It’s a plum kind of role, but you have to be a certain age to do it.”
But the cast of this production aren’t all seasoned actors. For some, this is their first drama, or even their first time on stage.
RUTH: There ain’t so much between us Walter, not when you come to me and try to talk to me; try to be with me a little, even!
Amy Staton, for instance, has never been in a play before, and show she’s taken on the principle role of the submissive but protective wife of Walter Lee Younger, Ruth. She’s honored to be a part of the production.
“I find it an honor to work with people that have acting experience. I learn a lot.”
Regardless of their experience, each actor has been working on getting into character in a similar manner, whether with read-throughs at rehearsals or re-watching older performances of the play. It can be difficult, however, like for Collice Moore, who’s taken on the role of the play’s only white character, Carl Linder.
“My character is trying to keep the African American family in the play from moving into a white neighborhood. Some of the things he says are pretty harsh. He’s says them subtly, but he’s trying to force them out. It’s not something that I’m really familiar with. I’ve been trying to study some history and different things about how things were back in the fifties and sixties.”
While these varying degrees of experience can make the already tedious process of directing a play that much more difficult, director Janice Schreiber welcomes the opportunity.
“It is wonderful, actually, when you have someone who has done a lot of theatre who can, and very beautifully, not in a way that is condescending to someone who doesn’t have the experience, but to really be sort of a guiding force. And then also to reinforce, with somebody’s whose been around for awhile and done a few shows, there’s always something new to be learned about the process.”
For a director, that process includes quite a bit of research.
“Essentially, I as a director become my own dramaturge. A dramaturge is a person who does the research, and they work side-by-side with the director. That’s kind of a very big piece of it, and takes and demands a lot and demands you do it a few months in advance so you go in as a knowledgeable into the process.”
Then, there’s coordinating all of the actors and set-pieces, and in a very prop-heavy and activity-heavy play like “Raisin,” that can become quite a hassle, like when stocking the 1950’s the kitchen.
“I am very meticulous about trying to be as close to the time period as possible, which is in the early fifties, and so getting the kitchen was a hard thing to do. A lot of the various pieces are quite expensive. So, luckily, through East Carolina University’s department of Theatre and Dance, I was able to get the materials that I needed.”
The play will open on the evening of August 2nd at 7:30, and will run for two weekends. There will also be a special benefit performance for the historic Third Street School on the 1st. I’m Lee Jenkins.