Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
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 Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW 202-554-9066
You are a political refugee. We don’t turn back people like you, people in danger.
Theater audiences don’t usually burst into applause in the middle of a scene. But these aren’t usual times, and the line above, from Lillian Hellman’s 1941 Watch on the Rhine, certainly struck a nerve with those attending an opening night performance at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Hellman’s 76 year-old play may be about a different time in history, but the themes seem eerily fitting today.
The Fichandler Stage
Family matriarch, Fanny Farrelly (Marsha Mason), and her son, David (Thomas Keegan), live outside the nation’s capital, in a mansion watched over by two servants, Anise (Helen Hedman), and Joseph (Addison Switzer). Also in the house are two guests – Count Teck De Brancovis (J Anthony Crane) and his wife, Marthe (Natalia Payne). In the round Fichandler Stage, the gazebo-like living room designed by Todd Rosenthal is upscale yet warm and comfortable, a setting that reflects the inhabitants.
The household is preparing for a visit by Sara (Lisa Bruneau), Fanny’s daughter and David’s sister, who has been in Europe for 20 years. Sara arrives with her husband, Kurt Müller (a visceral performance by Andrew Long), and their three children, Joshua (Ethan Miller), Babette (Lucy Breedlove), and Bodo (Tyler Bowman).
Ethan Miller, Helen Hedman, Lise Bruneau, Andrew Long, and Lucy Breedlove
Fanny and David greet Sara warmly. Fanny not only is thrilled to have her daughter home, but excited to meet her grandchildren. She’s soon showering them with presents. David and Sara reminisce about their times growing up in the mansion. But their lives have taken far different paths. While Fanny and David have been living in a safe “bubble,” Sara and her family have been on the front lines in Germany, watching with horror the destruction wrought by Hitler. “The world has changed and some of the people in it are dangerous,” Sara says. “It’s time you knew that.” Kurt has not worked as an engineer since 1933 and instead risks his life fighting the rise of fascism. And that fight has followed him to America. He receives word that his compatriots in Germany are in trouble and he needs to return, along with the suitcase of money contributed by supporters of the cause, to help free them.
Like so many Americans during that time, Fanny and David fail to grasp the full import of what is happening in Europe. Seeing the danger through Sara’s and Kurt’s eyes brings things into focus. They fully support Kurt’s efforts, as evidenced by David’s declaration quoted above.
J Anthony Crane and Natalia Payne
The fly in the ointment is the count. De Brancovis is a desperate man. His marriage is ending (Marthe has fallen in love with David), and after spending nights gambling at the German embassy, he’s in serious debt. When he discovers Kurt’s identity and what’s in the suitcase, he sees an opportunity to repay the Farrelly’s hospitality with blackmail. He asks for what’s in the suitcase, as well as money from the Farrellys, to keep quiet. That demand will set into motion events that threaten everyone with deadly consequences.
Marsha Mason (photo byTony Powell)
Mason, once a high profile presence in 1970 romantic comedies, has talked about the difficulties older actresses face landing film roles. Her recent appearances on the small screen include guest spots on CBS’s The Good Wife and Madame Secretary, and Grace and Frankie on Netflix. She’s the high profile star in this production. Don’t miss the chance to see this professional at the top of her game. She commands attention, showing the many facets of Fanny’s personality as she morphs from the perfect hostess and caring mother into someone who is more flint than fluff, ready to protect those she loves and make a moral stand. “Well, we’ve been shaken out of the magnolias,” she says, the full impact of the situation hitting home.
Andrew Long and Thomas Keegan
Director Jackie Maxwell brings her magic touch to an excellent supporting cast. Long’s performance is riveting. While Kurt loves his wife and children, standing up against fascism is a battle he fights for them. Long balances both sides of Kurt’s character, gentle with his wife and children one moment, lashing out against the count in another. As brave as Kurt is, it’s Bruneau’s Sara who stands out as the courageous one. Once Kurt leaves on his rescue mission, however, she laments what her life will be like without him. The three young actors, playing characters who have had to grow up much too soon, also display maturity beyond their years. These are three young people to watch.
Keegan’s David is the ballast steadying the family. Without his unconditional love and support, Kurt and Sara might have been left to fend for themselves. Besides turning in a strong performance, Keegan serves as the play’s fight captain, staging a scene that is both exciting and startling.
Crane’s evil count brings to mind other villains, mostly from films, who were never true believers but supported fascism for their own selfish reasons. These many years later, Hellman’s play still resonates.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Watch on the Rhine Fichandler Stage Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street, SW Through March 5, 2017
Lillian Hellman’s drama about a Southern family motivated by secrets, lies, abuse, and greed comes alive at Arena Stage with a stellar cast deftly directed by Kyle Donnelly. The setting is Alabama in 1900, a state still recovering from the Civil War. Addie (Kim James Bey) and Cal (David Emerson Toney), no longer slaves, are still servants in the Giddens household. (And truly the only ones with any sense of right and wrong.) Regina Hubbard Giddens (Marg Helgenberger) seems to dominate the family, but she’s frustrated with her financial situation. In the early 20th century, only sons were considered heirs. So Regina seethes watching her brothers Benjamin (Edward Gero) and Oscar (Gregory Linington) enjoy the family’s wealth while she remains dependent on her husband, Horace (Jack Willis).
Hellman’s play holds up surprisingly well with themes that continue to resonate, particularly during this election year. The Little Foxes is part of Arena’s Lillian Hellman Festival. Watch on the Rhine, starring Marsha Mason, will be produced later in the season. There will also be staged readings, film screenings, and panel discussions to explore Hellman’s body of work.
Megan Graves and Kim James Bey
Superficially, the Giddens home has all the trappings of affluence and stability, the stage setting reflecting a more than comfortable existence for the family. (Set design, Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; lighting, Nancy Schertler). Around the elegantly set dining room table, Regina plays hostess entertaining her brothers, Oscar’s wife, Birdie (Isabel Keating), and their son, Leo (Stanton Nash). But tensions roil underneath that cordial surface. Regina, who married Horace for his money, is disappointed that the match has not provided her with the financial freedom she desires. Oscar is dismissive and abusive of Birdie who self-medicates with alcohol. The Giddens daughter, Alexandra, called Zan (Megan Graves), adores her father, Horace, who has been away getting treatment for a serious heart condition. Largely ignored by Regina, Zan is taken under Birdie’s wing and watched over by Addie.
Gregory Linington, Edward Gero, and Stanton Nash
Benjamin and Oscar are out to increase their wealth by investing in a cotton mill. They need $75,000 and want Regina to ask Horace for the money. Horace has already given the brothers a thumbs down. (Oscar’s other plan for obtaining the money, to have Leo marry Alexandra, also is rejected by Horace.) So Leo, who works at the bank, steals Horace’s railroad bonds from a safety deposit box. Regina’s scheme to blackmail her brothers about the theft for a percentage of the mill is thwarted by Horace. Regina succeeds in the end, finally achieving financial independence, but at a huge cost.
Isabel Keating and Marg Helgenberger
As Regina, Helgenberger is a force to be reckoned with. Everything about her, from her strict posture to her steely gaze, sends the message that she is determined to succeed. There’s no evidence of the warm and helpful Catherine Willows from CSI. When she speaks, those honeyed southern tones are tinged with vinegar. The contrast with her daughter, Zan, is striking. Graves projects a youthful innocence in the first act, but by the end of the play, we witness her transformation, rejecting her mother’s values and ready to stand on her own. Even at this point, Regina can’t help but damn her daughter with faint praise. “Why Alexandra! You have spirit after all. I used to think you were all sugar water.”
Jack Willis, Marg Helgenberger, and Isabel Keating
Horace doesn’t appear until Act II, but when Willis enters, the effect is immediate. Moving slowly with a wooden walker, Willis’ Horace nonetheless is a powerful presence. There’s a touching moment between Horace, Birdie, Zan, and Addie, the four most likable characters in the household and in the play. They are comfortable with each other, their fondness and respect for Horace evident. Birdie, who overindulges in the elderberry wine served by Addie, has a laughing fit where she confesses she dislikes her son, Leo. (Keating’s performance here, and really throughout the play, is remarkable.) Horace’s medical condition adds to his concern for the three women and his worry that he won’t be around to protect them much longer. But he does what he can, telling Addie that he has left her $2,700, and revising his will to take care of Zan.
In contrast, Regina, never the doting wife, is not happy to have him home, and becomes further agitated when she discovers what he plans to do about the stolen bonds. She holds back nothing, telling Horace how much she despises him. And when he suffers a heart attack, she refuses to go upstairs to get his medication. He makes an attempt to climb the stairs, but collapses before he reaches the top. (The clever set, which includes a winding staircase, allows us to witness Horace’s futile climb.)
There are no real winners in the end. That quest for wealth and power at the expense of others always takes a toll. “Maybe it’s easy for the dying to be honest,” Horace tells Regina. “You’ll wreck the country, you and your kind, if they let you. But not me, I’ll die my own way, and I’ll do it without making the world worse. I’ll leave that to you.”