Before an actor steps on stage to become a character in a play, a great deal of time has been spent preparing for that role. Joy Jones, now appearing in Arena Stage’s A Raisin in the Sun, began her advance work by watching an archival recording of the 2014 Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s play which starred Denzel Washington as Walter Lee Younger and Anika Noni Rose as Walter’s sister, Beneatha, the role Jones is now playing. Jones’ research, however, was just beginning.
“I analyzed my script: first writing down anything that Beneatha says about herself, then writing down anything all the other characters say describing her, and then going back to Beneatha’s lines and noting any vocal habits or repetitions,” Jones explains. “For example, Beneatha says `gee’ and `oh’ frequently, which told me she was an expressive person.”
Jones also reviewed the packet of background information the play’s dramaturg, Georgetown University Professor Soyica Colbert, gave to the cast and creative team. “It contained details of Lorraine Hansberry’s own life and details about Chicago and the broader society [in the early 1960s],” she says. “My next step was watching films and documentaries of the time, especially those featuring African-Americans and other people of African descent.” Jones found the standouts were: Carmen Jones, an adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen for an African-American cast; Black Orpheus, which brought the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the twentieth-century madness of Carnival in Rio; and Take a Giant Leap, a coming of age film about a black teenager growing up in a predominantly white environment.
And all that before memorizing one line!
Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith seems to be a woman on a mission. This season’s lineup of plays – Roe, Watch on the Rhine, Intelligence, and Smart People – provoke discussion at a time when those conversations are desperately needed. A Raisin in the Sun fits that pattern. Hansberry’s play, which first debuted on Broadway in 1959, centers on an an African-American family living in Chicago, struggling to improve their lives. The family patriarch has died, leaving his widow, Lena (Lizan Mitchell) with a life insurance payment of $10,000. How that money will be spent creates tension within the family. Lena’s son, Walter Lee (Will Cobbs), who works as a chauffeur, wants to open a liquor store. Beneatha has set her sights on becoming a doctor, yet she is still defining herself, illustrated in the play by the two very different men she is dating.
“I could relate to Beneatha,” says Jones. “I remember being in college at 20 and being very sure about some things – who I thought I was, who I wanted to be. And I also remember there being many, many things that I was unsure and even ignorant about. I knew that I was in a state of becoming. So my portrayal of Beneatha definitely goes back and forth between being sure and unsure.”
Despite her ambitions to further her education, Beneatha seems less concerned than her brother with the money that their mother will be receiving. “I think Beneatha’s response is three-fold,” explains Jones. “One is a sense of rightness about the money being her mother’s as next of kin. Two, is her certainty as the younger – somewhat spoiled – sibling that she’ll be taken care of like always. And third is the optimism of youth. That all contrasts with frustration and desperation that Walter Lee has as a husband and father in his mid thirties.”
While the play never shows Beneatha actually studying, she expresses her ambitions through the play’s dialogue. “In her very first scene, she mentions a recent biology class,” Jones says. In a scene with one of her suitors, Joseph Asagai, played by Bueka Uwemedimo, Beneatha “marvels at the power of medicine to heal a young playmate, and says that she wants to cure people.”
Asagai, who is from Nigeria, teaches Beneatha about her African roots, while George Murchison (Keith L. Royal Smith) takes her to cultural events. “Each young man offers her a different set of possibilities,” says Jones. “Her time with George exposes her to high culture: theatre performances and `nice places’, and a world of wealth and material comfort. In contrast, Asagai offers her entrée into a world beyond Chicago: a world of political transformation and ancient culture. And both men are beautiful!” Which one would she choose? “Several women I’ve spoken to after performances tell me what they thought Beneatha did after the play ended. Some think Beneatha goes to Nigeria with Asagai, and others are equally certain that she leaves them both behind for a career in medicine!”
The issue of abortion is brought up in the play, a topic that continues to be debated. “At our opening night, Joi Gresham, the trustee of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust said `that we are all catching up to Lorraine,’” says Jones. “She meant that so many of the issues Lorraine Hansberry discusses are still with us, including abortion. I believe it’s included to show a context where a woman could consider abortion as the best or rational choice to preserve her relationship with her partner and the financial well being of her entire family.”
Bueka Uwemedimo as Joseph Asagai and Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger
Racial equality, however, is the overall theme of the play. The Civil Rights movement was in its infancy. When Lena uses some of the money to put a down payment on a house in an all white community, the reaction is swift and hurtful. A representative of the neighborhood attempts to buy back the house from Lena. “There are several versions of the play which include scenes and even characters that are not in this production,” says Jones. “One such scene is with a neighbor, Mrs. Johnson. She tries to draw the family into conversation about the expected check and eventually berates them – especially Beneatha – for their proud ways. It’s an insightful scene because it shows that in this working class community the Younger family is perceived as strivers, who may or may not have ‘airs’. Therefore, inside and outside of the family it is not a great surprise. They not only work hard but dream big.”
The title of the play comes from a Langston Hughes poem Harlem: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” “When I heard about the genesis of the title I thought that it was a powerful call back to the poem,” says Jones. “The title could’ve been Dream Deferred, but instead Lorraine Hansberry shows the poetic image. The choice – like much of the play’s dialogue – shows that Lorraine Hansberry herself had a sense of lyrical language.”
More than 50 years later, Hansberry’s play still resonates, particularly in our nation’s capital. “The play is important now because we always need stories that remind us about all the humanity in all the other people around us,” says Jones. “And as the city grows and changes, and the nation discusses security and immigration, it’s timely to think about our perception of insiders and outsiders. I would hope that audiences are reminded of the nobility and imperfection of regular people who want to live good, principled lives and make the world better for themselves and the children.”
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Top: Lizan Mitchell as Lena Younger and Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger
A Raisin in the Sun
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