Greensboro’s Triad Stage is kicking off the new year with the American Classic, “A Raisin in the Sun.” Though the play debuted 60 years ago, themes of racial tension and issues of identity make this show a particularly insightful choice for the local non-profit theater. Reflecting on pre-civil rights tensions, the play highlights how institutions of racism and prejudice have stood the test of time.
“A Raisin in the Sun” was written by Lorraine Hansberry, the first African-American playwright to hit Broadway in the play’s 1959 debut. It has been adapted for film and radio play multiple times throughout the years and has seen revivals on and off-Broadway.
The drama follows the struggles of the Youngers, a poverty-stricken family living in a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s south side, a city on the cusp of racial integration. Siblings, Walter and Beneatha, come into money left behind by their deceased father’s life insurance policy and disagree with their mother, Lena, on how the $10,000 should be spent. Walter dreams of buying a liquor store, and Beneatha strives to attend medical school, a radical goal for a black woman during the 1950s. Per Lena’s wishes, the family agrees to put money down on a new house in a predominantly white neighborhood, causing outrage among the residents.
I spoke with Phil Wright, an actor who plays Karl Linder, a white representative from the neighborhood who offers to buy the Youngers out of their home and add interest, sparking conflict within the family. I asked what it was like playing this villain role, and he gave some insight on how he gives Mr. Lindler life.
“I’m not coming at it from a villain’s perspective,” said Wright on playing this controversial character. “I look at [Karl] as someone who is concerned for their [the Younger’s] safety. When black families were moving into white neighborhoods in 1950s Chicago, they were being threatened. Bricks were being thrown into windows, houses were being burned down, and people would be dragged out of their homes.”
The play also deals with issues of assimilation through the character Beneatha, who is pulled in two directions by the men in her life. She is torn between her boyfriend George, who denies his heritage in favor of chasing a more “white” persona, and her friend Joseph who teaches her about her culture and gives her gifts from Africa.
While this internal conflict rages within young Beneatha, we see a portrait of a radical young woman pursuing a career in a traditionally male profession. Her fearlessness mirrors that of playwright Hansberry, who should be known for more than just her influential play, though it is one that charted new territory for the stage that included, for the first time in history, black actors. She was also a radical leftist and activist, as well as a black lesbian, though she struggled to present herself as such in conservative 1950s and 1960s America. In an interview with the New York Times, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who played Lena Younger in the 2014 Broadway Revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” sees Beneatha as a character with “a very feminist, ‘why not me’ point of view.”
Triad Stage presents “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Pyrle Theater on Elm Street. Opening night is Friday, Feb. 2 at 8 p.m. On Feb. 4 after the 2 p.m. performance, North Carolina native and historian Dr. Cynthia Greenlee will give a talk on post-Civil War legal history of African Americans and the United States’ South. For more information, including ticket pricing and a full schedule, you can visit http://www.triadstage.org.