Director Timothy McCuen Piggee and Dramaturg Kristin Leahey discuss Lorraine Hansberry, empathy, historically accurate radiators, and diving for pearls.
RY: I’d love to hear both of your personal experiences with the play. Let’s start with you, Timothy.
TMP: I had some family members who produced the play in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I grew up, and I remember being impressed that something like that could take place on stage. But my initial appreciation began when I was in high school, reading the play on my own. In Salt Lake City, there wasn’t a lot of African American theatre – I remember reading the play and really being affected by it. And then, in the university I went to, it was the 35th anniversary [of Raisin] and I was cast as George Murchison and I also understudied Asagai.
After that, I was cast as George Murchison again in a Seattle Group Theatre production. And that cast at the time consisted of real Seattle luminaries. The late great Anthony Lee was Walter Lee, and he was spectacular. You know, what a tragic loss that was. He was at the pinnacle of his career and he was starting to work more in L.A. and he decided he was going to move there. One of the greatest compliments I would get was that people would confuse us all the time. I’d say “oh that was Anthony” and he’d say “oh that was Timothy.” So he moved down to L.A. with his wife and one night, he went to a Halloween party and he was dressed as an army soldier. And I guess a neighbor called in a noise complaint; the police came and saw a silhouette of him with his toy gun and shot him. It was a great loss. So it’s really incredible being a part of this production because there are moments when Anthony ‘s been right there with me.
And after that production, I began teaching at Cornish College of the Arts and I came to discover that the play represents a world that anyone could learn from, like with Shakespeare. Because the first lesson an actor needs to learn is empathy.
Then I was cast in the Intiman production and…now I’m here!
RY: What an incredibly rich history with this play. Kristin, how about you?
KL: Well first, I just find it so interesting pedagogically, Timothy, how you’ve been using this play in your classroom. So when I was down in the University of Texas, all of the acting professors got together and we chose Angels of America and we made every one of those students, many of whom didn’t have any exposure to that type of literature, learn the play and it was just so revelatory for them. I know it’s been the same for your students, Timothy.
TMP: It’s empathy. How do you see yourself in the other? And I think that’s part of Lorraine’s mission. She was tired of these cardboard cutouts of African American characters. She wanted to go to the theatre and have an experience where you got to see the truth, the soul of a person, with all their flaws.
KL: So for me, I remember reading the play in middle school. I grew up an hour and a half away from Chicago, and throughout my young adulthood into adulthood, I saw how in the city the neighborhoods changed due to racial segregation. My last theatre was in Skokie in the North Shore, and the population there was a product of white flight, very much like where Raisin is set. So for me, by the time I left Chicago – I was teaching at the University of Chicago, I was teaching in the loop, teaching on the west side and working on the north side – and I noticed how the city so dramatically changed in terms of identity. It was really impactful for me and an interesting contextualization of the root of origin of Lorraine’s theatre.
RY: In the play, the location itself is such a character.
KL: Very much so. When I was at Wooly Mammoth Theatre, I worked on a production of Clybourne Park and I remember talking to the set designer for the need of accurate radiators. I love being able to visit this play especially after having worked on that play.
RY: So what kind of differences in Raisin did you immediately notice when you both started going over Lorraine Hansberry’s initial drafts?
TMP: Some of the differences were quite profound, which, I think would vastly change the arc of the play. In one version of the play, Karl Lindner doesn’t appear.
RY: Oh! So what was the crux of the play?
TMP: It was about them losing their money, and not the idea that you had this outside pressure of the community they were going to move into.
RY: Was this a very early draft?
TMP: Yes, I think it was 1953 because then we had drafts where, for example, the character of George Murchison is much more realized. There’s a discussion that he has with Beneatha, that’s vastly different – in terms of Beaneatha being full of doubt. You know, I love what Lorraine says about the character Beneatha; she calls her a mess, and she says it’s who she was eight years ago before she wrote the play.
Then in another draft, we learn the background history of the family that’s only alluded to in the current iteration – how Walter and Ruth got together, what Walter’s aspirations were when he was younger. The relationship between Lena and Travis is more realized in one of these versions.
RY: So how many drafts did she have?
KL: This is reflective of her as a writer; she worked with SO many different drafts. I viewed maybe five or six and I think there were many more. And these were the drafts going into rehearsal processes prior to the Broadway run.
RY: In our first interview, Kristin, you told me how she wouldn’t just edit here and there, she would change an entire section, the entire tone of a piece.
TMP: She was ruthless with herself. It seems she was so full of doubt early on in the process, it’s almost like she never intended to have it performed. She was just putting it out – an outpouring of herself. It wasn’t until she shared it with people and they said “this needs to have a life” that it took a solid direction.
RY: The production that we’re seeing now – how do you think she came to this final iteration?
TMP: I would imagine she had to see it unfold in front of her. What’s necessary, what isn’t necessary? What is the through line of the arc, and what muddies the through line? And just keeping an eye on the old watch on the wrist. It’s a long play and we’re choosing to put in two intermissions, whereas the most recent Broadway revival only had one.
KL: I think that’s really smart; just with the pacing of Act 1 and Act 2, we definitely need a respite between them.
TMP: I was talking to the cast about some of the design choices that we’re making with our production and how we’re choosing to start the production. We have a very iconic image of the flag you sit silently with, and it was a choice that was made weeks ago, before the very public debate now about the flag – and you know, it’s just serendipitous.
We’re also choosing to put music of the time out in the lobby. So the South Side of Chicago is out in the lobby. But when you enter into the auditorium, our set is a sort of altar with this image. And you sit with it with a very minimal soundscape. Not music, just some strings playing in the distance, or even an electric hum. We want the audience to be a little uneasy. The play is about dreams, and are your dreams different than mine? And does our race, status, gender, conditions placed around us lead us to think that there’s an unfulfilled promise of America? That’s the image we want people to think and sit with.
RY: In terms of what Lorraine left out of her final draft, why do you think she did?
KL: I think what we found with her draft, in exposition, was “reduce reduce reduce.”
TMP: Right, I think the structure of the play is so efficient and that it’s why it’s put in textbooks, why it’s used in classrooms.
KL: You look at a play, and you look at what’s the skeleton of the play. And if you have a really great skeleton, whether or not it’s linear or abstract, if that base skeleton is well crafted, it can really mold the meat and structure of the play.
TMP: You know, the play could easily be a miniseries. But if you’re having an evening at the theatre, and you want to show the depth and breadth of a people that has not been represented before… I think Felicia Rashad said “she took people you would pass on the street, who you wouldn’t think twice about, and elevated them and put them on the stage.” And so the essentials are there. I don’t think that the things that were edited out were greatly missed because what’s still left is so potent and effective.
RY: After reviewing her materials, how has our production of A Raisin in the Sun changed?
KL: I think the contextualization we’ve been allowed to do for this production has been transformational – in a sense of looking at and feeling the proximity to the original work. And discovering in her writing how much the secondary sources affected the primary source – how A got to B – has been very profound. Understanding her journey, her as an artist, her insecurities, the breadth of her work – she was a forerunner in terms of thinking about civil rights, she was a prolific writer, a poetess, and her identity, her sexuality, and her relationship with her family was all so wonderful. Beneatha was clearly a reflection of her at a young age. And when you see Timothy’s beautiful production, you’re shown a window of that world of the 1950s, and you’re able to bridge all these connections. I think our production has grown as we’ve been able to connect to vintage productions of the play. Our production is a part of the national conversation of Hansberry’s work, and not that she was only one play, but a quintessential writer who changed theatre and American culture.
TMP: I think every play has its own music. So being able to interact with the various drafts was fascinating. When I’m directing, I’m trying to find the music. When I’m trying to find that eighth note, it really shouldn’t be a quarter note. For example, “I found a second hand bureau on Maxwell Street. All it would need is a new coat of varnish and handles and it would look like something brand new.” I think that needs to be emphasized in that speech, because we’re talking about trying to fix up a busted dream! That image of a secondhand bureau that’s made to look new – we all know what it’s like to fix up something vintage so that it looks new, but it rarely looks brand new, it looks antiqued or shabby chic.
KL: This is why we don’t see small internal cuts from her, there’s musicality to every line she has, so she cuts chunks because she’s cutting stanzas, and not necessarily abrupt ideas. Even the simplest document, like a letter to her husband, was still written with vitality and intensity.
TMP: It shows that she was a quintessential artist. She vacillated between “am I creating something that is worthwhile or something that is unworthy?”
RY: What do you hope audiences will take away from our production?
T: Oh, I want them to be pissed! This stuff is still going on?? Why haven’t we progressed? Who decides who gets to wear pearls? Something that’s naturally occurring in the world?
KL: Oh, that’s fascinating I never thought of it that way. Pearls not as status symbol but as a naturally occurring thing that anyone can have!
TMP: If you can dive deep enough to get them <laughs>.
RY: How do you think Seattle audiences will respond to this play?
TMP: Well, Seattle is still one of the most segregated cities. But I think that one of the things the play has going for it, is how funny it is. And I say this to my students: you’re going to get it on whatever level you’re going to get it. And if you leave the theatre only thinking, “oh that was delightful!” that’s still something.
And you know, we all know what it’s like to be raised by someone. So it’s all there on stage in front of you, regardless of culture, we can all relate.
KL: Thanks to the cast you brought together, there’s this sense of fun and risk taking, and such a cohesive culture you’ve created for this play, Timothy.
TMP: We are so fortunate!
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