“A Raisin in the Sun,” for many readers, may immediately bring to mind the last line of Langston Hughes’ famous poem, “A Dream Deferred.” Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play takes its name from the poem, spotlighting the Youngers – an African-American family living in a small apartment on the south side of Chicago – as they await the arrival of a $10,000 check, the payment from the late patriarch’s life insurance policy. As the drama unfolds, the Youngers must make choices that powerfully illuminate the demands of an oppressive society in 1950s America.
Judith Olauson, director of the play, shared a few insights about this compelling drama.
Artsweek: Describe the play.
Judith Olauson: Well, the play is “A Raisin in the Sun.” It’s a play written by an African-American playwright back in the ’50s, and she wrote it about her point of view of family in the south side of Chicago, which is a pretty run-down tenement kind of ghetto, and how three generations of this family are living together in one tiny apartment and how they hope for a better life. Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote the play, was very much experiencing this kind of life because she lived on the other side of the coin; she lived in a more privileged society. Her father was a kind of landlord of these kinds of apartments, and she saw the struggles that these black families were having, and so had a great deal of sympathy for that. This is the very first play that she ever wrote, and she was pretty determined that she was going to have the theater work in a way that would better the situation of the African-American populace in Chicago who were living in this area, and to also point out the hopes and the dreams of these people, [and] how they were important in this period in time. This is all pre-civil rights movement era, and so it is sort of a prelude to that. I think it denotes a kind of passion that she has for the theater itself, and also the idea that she was very much an idealist and an idealistic writer who saw the good side of the coin all the time, the good side of bad situations and always felt as though there was a solution to it – the solution being education, understanding, compassion and learning. That sort of thing.
What were some of the biggest challenges that you encountered as a director of this play?
It’s been a long dream of mine to direct this production, and one of the biggest problems I’ve had in directing it was finding a cast, because it is completely African-American except for one white role. Because we have a really intense [bachelor of arts] actors’ training program, obviously all of us as directors like to use [bachelor of arts] actors, although the auditions are open. But we’ve never really had a relatively large pool of African-American actors to choose from. So, at this point in time, these young actors are coming up – two of them are seniors, two are juniors, and two are B.A. students. One is a community actor – a young boy, an 11-year-old boy – and I was able to find these actors and round them up and gather them together, and realize that I had a really strong cast for the show.
One character is Mama, the grandmother, who has to be played by an African-American woman who has real strength and power, and [with] a physicality that would match. And I had that, in an African-American actress, who is a senior in our [bachelor of arts] program right now, who will be graduating this year. So the biggest challenge, I think, was being able to anticipate that I would have the actors to fill these roles.
I think the other big challenge is the fact that I am not African-American. And that perhaps those who might participate in it wouldn’t accept my point of view of the play. But that has not proven to be the case. I think if you really carefully read the play, and if you really have a repoir with the playwright, even though you haven’t had that particular experience, I think if you’re really true to the playwright, then the play really sort of comes out by itself. And certainly the actors have brought it out, too.
You’ve worked with Theatre UCSB as both an actor and director. Do you prefer one to the other?
My whole training before I came to UCSB was as an actress. I took this position as a teacher of acting, but it’s blossomed over the years as I’ve been here into other areas, such as directing. I think when you come to a certain point in your life, I think you start to have preferences of one over the other. But I would hate to say that my acting career is at an end because my directing career is flourishing, or vice versa. I would say that I still have that passion for acting that probably nothing will ever replace. But directing has been extremely fulfilling, because it’s more collaborative and I work with many other artists and have an opportunity to share a lot of ideas with them in producing a play.
What do you hope audiences gain from “A Raisin in the Sun”?
I hope that they understand what Hansberry wanted everyone to understand, and that was that human beings have a power and nobility in them, and they don’t have to be victims or they don’t have to be confused. And they could make good decisions, and they can be very brave about those decisions. And they need to be true to themselves. I think that’s primarily what she wanted to say. She also wanted to make a social statement, and I think I do. That is that we all have a social responsibility to each other, and we have a responsibility to learn about each other, to learn about particular families in particular periods of time, in this particular time and place, if that makes sense.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I would like to say that the actors that I’m working with right now are superb. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a cast that’s so close and so attached to a play as this cast has been. It’s been a real joy working with them. I guess that’s basically what I feel after working with them for the past month and a half, that they are deeply committed to this play, and their understanding of it is astounding. So I’m very grateful to have directed it.
“A Raisin in the Sun” opens Friday, May 18 at the Performing Arts Theatre, 8 p.m. and runs through May 26. For additional performance dates, tickets and other information, please call 893-3535.