Stage Interview: Turf Wars — “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Clybourne Park”

Clybourne Park was expressly written to be in conversation with Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The former gives us a new perspective—actually new perspectives—on the latter.

By Bill Marx

An African-American family has moved into the White House, so it is not all that surprising that a theatrical warhorse like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is receiving more than customary attention from theater companies. Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company is currently mounting a production of the oft-produced 1959 yarn of a black family’s struggles to move into an all-white, Chicago neighborhood (through April 7). More intriguing is how the script has inspired responses from a number of contemporary playwrights. The anthology Reimagining A Raisin in the Sun, edited by Harvey Young and Rebecca Ann Rugg (Northwestern University Press), contains four plays, all written after 2009, that respond to the thorny issues of race, real estate, tolerance, and family values generated by Raisin. The volume also includes interviews with the playwrights and some observations from George C. Wolfe, whose play The Colored Museum sparked some of the dramatic reevaluations of Raisin.

One of the plays in the collection, Clybourne Park, is currently being staged by the SpeakEasy Stage Company (through March 30), so Boston theatergoers have a fascinating chance to compare, back-to-back, Hansberry’s venerable drama and a script that it inspired. Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama deals, in part, with the white family that sells its home to the black family in Raisin.

I sent some e-mail questions to Harvey Young, one of the editors of the volume, about the relationship between A Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park, American drama’s current fascination with urban turf battles, and what the scripts have to say about the state of contemporary neighborliness.

Arts Fuse: Clybourne Park and A Raisin in the Sun are currently running at major Boston theaters. Is there something special to be learned or experienced by audiences seeing the two plays back to back?

Harvey Young — We’re told that The American Dream frequently centers on real estate.

Harvey Young: Clybourne Park was expressly written to be in conversation with Lorraine Hansberry’s play. It gives the play a new perspective—actually new perspectives—the viewpoint of the “sellers” of the home that Hansberry’s Youngers want to buy and also a contemporary vantage point to reflect on the history of neighborhood segregation, white flight, and present day gentrification efforts within a city’s core.

AF: Do you see resonances in these plays today, particularly in Boston, given how they both deal with the interconnection of race and real estate?

Harvey Young: Sometimes, we mistakenly believe that racism and racial tension exist only in the South. The plays of Hansberry and Norris remind us that they were very present in the major cities in the North and Midwest. Certainly, Boston is not an exception. We just have to look at the history of neighborhood segregation in the city—for example, in South Boston and Roxbury—and the violence that erupted in the 1970s when school systems were integrated. People threw rocks, eggs, bricks, and other such items at buses carrying young, black schoolchildren.

AF: In his interview about Clybourne Park in your book Reimagining A Raisin in the Sun, playwright Bruce Norris says that Clybourne Park is “definitely a play for white people. It’s a play about white people. It’s about the white response to race, about being the power elite, about being the people who have the power in the race argument.” Do you agree? And is A Raisin in the Sun about black people?

Harvey Young: I think that Clybourne being a “play for white people,” as Bruce Norris puts it, is partially rooted in the fact that there are not any likable white characters in A Raisin in the Sun. In fact, there’s only one white character, Karl Lindner, who proves even more objectionable in Norris’s play. What Norris does is he gives audiences more easily relatable characters with whom they can identify. Obviously, spectators constantly identify across race, gender, age, and class lines when they watch a play, TV, or a movie. That’s why both A Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park were commercial successes.

I don’t think that any group has “power” in the race argument. There’s a lot of fear, anxiety, and insecurity in racism. A person could have social capital but feel completely vulnerable.

AF: Both plays are about swapping territory, about moving from one part of the American turf to another. Why do you think that that topic, with A Raisin in the Sun very much in mind, has recently inspired a number of plays?

Harvey Young: The “American Dream,” or so we’re told, frequently centers on real estate. Owning a home with a white picket fence. That’s why the current recession, which features people losing homes and being “underwater” on their mortgages, has shattered consumer confidence. It’s unlikely that the recession motivated the writing of Clybourne Park or any of the other contemporary, Raisin-themed plays like Robert O’Hara’s Etiquette of Vigilance, Gloria Bond Clunie’s Living Green, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Neighbors, or Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Beneatha’s Place—but the playwrights are using real estate as a way of probing the present-day thinking (and psychology) around race. It also seems fitting that these engagements would come slightly more than 50 years after Hansberry’s play, a good length of time to reflect on how far (or not) we have come as a society.

AF: You talk about how A Raisin in the Sun is part of a tradition of drama that explores the “viability of the liberal compact.” Does Raisin still carry much punch after the election of America’s first African-American President?

Harvey Young: There’s no doubt about the fact that Barack Obama overcame numerous glass ceilings. That being said, Obama’s election has yet to radically transform the day-to-day experiences of African Americans who remain overrepresented in jails and prisons and are more likely to profiled by police. The unemployment rate of African Americans is significantly higher for African Americans than the national average. There have been studies that have suggested that a white worker with a felony is more likely to be hired than a black worker with a clean record and the same employment experience. The reality is that plenty of talented, hard-working men and women live lives that closely resemble those of Ruth and Walter Lee—and this nearly 55 years after A Raisin in the Sun premiered and with an African-American president in the White House.

AF: And how does Clybourne Park answer the question you ask in the introduction to the book: “how does citizenship live in our neighborhoods, our living rooms, our backyards?”

Harvey Young: Our sense of who we are as nation is shaped and enacted by our local arrangements and engagements. It’s how we talk with and interact with our neighborhoods that informs who we are a block, a community, a town, a state, and a nation.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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