by Lindsey Davis
Boston, MA – Huntington Theater Company in Boston’s South End is currently performing Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” a play that first debuted in 1959. When Hansberry passed away in 1965, she named her former husband as her literary executor, and that man later remarried Joi Gresham’s mother. After his death Joi took on the role as the executive director of the Lorraine Hansberry Properties Trust. She manages all publications and staging of Lorraine’s work, which includes involvement in the Huntington Theater Company’s current performances. As the trustee of these important works of literature, Joi continues to speak about Lorraine, her activism and her continued relevance, even in “post-racial” America.
DID YOU EVER MEET LORRAINE IN PERSON? WHETHER OR NOT YOU WERE ABLE TO, WHAT IMPRESSION HAS SHE LEFT ON YOU?
At the age of 34, Lorraine died from cancer in 1965. She named her creative collaborator and former husband, Robert Nemiroff, as her literary executor. Bob was a playwright, songwriter, music publisher and producer. In 1966, my mother, Jewell Handy Gresham, wrote a play and Bob directed it. I was 10 years old at that time. A year later they were married and my mother and I moved to his and Lorraine’s Croton-on-Hudson home in New York. This was the home in which I grew up. It was filled with Lorraine’s writings, artwork (she was a painter), books and keepsakes! It was also a home that she dearly loved, a sanctuary. So her spirit was felt throughout the house. I think of Lorraine as brilliant, funny, emotional, volatile and extremely gifted. She inspired me tremendously as an artist (choreographer) and as a young African-American female forging an identity in those turbulent times.
HOW HAS YOUR WORK AS THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF LORRAINE HANSBERRY PROPERTIES TRUST INVOLVED YOU IN THE HUNTINGTON THEATER COMPANY’S NEW SHOW?
My family owns the copyrights to the Hansberry literary catalogue. Following my father’s example, I license and manage the publication and staging of Lorraine’s work in print, audio and visual productions. I am the first to direct the Hansberry literary trust that was established in 2005 following my father’s death in 1991 and my mother’s in 2005. Having a background in performance and theater, I am involved in Hansberry’s work as a producer and as a production consultant. I represent the author to the public. In terms of the Huntington Theater Company’s current production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” I have been sharing production history and background with the director, Liesl Tommy. I have also met with the cast in the same capacity. These are things I really enjoy doing. In addition, I speak to the press about current productions of Hansberry’s work in the United States and abroad.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IT IS ABOUT “RAISIN IN THE SUN” THAT IS PARTICULARLY RELEVANT TODAY?
”A Raisin in the Sun” is a living play. It has been in continuous production since 1959. It has been performed in schools, community centers and amateur and professional theaters across the U.S. and abroad. It has been translated into over 30 languages. The last two generations of American students have been introduced to the play as part of their core reading in school. So the play and what it addresses has never left our cultural imagination. The play speaks of dreams and aspirations and the identities that take hold of us as we build and explore these dreams in hostile contexts. It asks, what happens to dreams — deferred — and what happens to our identity, our humanity and our dignity? This is especially relevant in hard times such as the present. The message of the play strongly resonates with our current political, social and economic situation. This is a teaching play that assists us in examining the human condition in mid-century America, and now again, in the early 21st century. It is amazing that it was written over 50 years ago by a brilliant and forward-looking young woman who imagined challenges that would transcend time and would continually face us as a society.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT LORRAINE’S LEGACY THAT YOU’RE MOST CONCERNED WITH PRESERVING?
Lorraine’s legacy is alive and has been kept alive by many. Through my father’s efforts as her literary executor and through the creative and inspiring efforts of theater companies all over the US and the world, new life has been continuously given to Lorraine’s words and stage works. Through these creative stagings and performances, new generations have come to love and claim her legacy as part of our common heritage. I am most pleased that Lorraine has become a cultural icon not only for the young, gifted and Black, but also for young people around the world who relate to her youth and determination. Robert Nemiroff dedicated the last 25 years of his life to securing the copyrights to Lorraine’s published and substantial number of unpublished works. He supplied the biographical, literary and production commentary for her plays, audio and visual recordings. In addition, he catalogued her plays, notated manuscripts, essays, articles, poems, letters, film, audio and video recordings and personal notebooks and journals. This collection is now available at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE CHARACTER OR A FAVORITE SCENE FROM A RAISIN IN THE SUN?
My favorite character changes a lot. It is easy to love Beneatha because she closely resembles Lorraine, who had such great fun poking fun at herself. I take that to mean that we should not be afraid to look at our aggressive traits, and ourselves and we should be able to laugh at and appreciate our spiritedness. Most recently, I have been learning a lot from the character Karl Lindner, who is often experienced as a villain and subordinated to the other characters, thus undervaluing his role and function in the play. He is as complex as any character in this play and held Lorraine’s respect as a human being despite his motives.
WHAT OTHER SORTS OF CIVIL RIGHTS CAUSES DO YOU OR THE HANSBERRY PROPERTIES TRUST WORK TO SUPPORT?
What an interesting question… I believe the answer lies in Lorraine’s body of work itself. Aside from “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine wrote “A Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” which concerns the Cold War-era leftist politics of a small community in New York’s Greenwich Village; “Les Blancs,” a commentary on late-colonial Africa and the shifting moral terrain; and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (adapted by Robert Nemiroff), an autobiographical portrait drawn from her plays, essays, letters and journals which speaks to her commitment to the great social and political movements of her time which she felt simultaneously called to as an activist and artist. These works are political in message and content and serve as beacons for the forthcoming social movements that would address injustice, inequality and call for our deep wisdom and humanity toward one another. The substance and power of her commentary and vision still holds.
CAN YOU REMEMBER WHEN YOU FIRST READ OR SAW RAISIN IN THE SUN? WHAT DID YOU FIRST THINK OF IT?
I think that I saw the 1961 film before I saw the play. I can’t accurately recall. It feels like the play has always been a part of my consciousness and identity and being that it was based on a real event that occurred in Lorraine’s life. That makes it part of my childhood and my home environment. The play represents what was going on in my life and the people that I knew then. When I think of my earliest feelings about Raisin, I recall the power of the story, the amazing performances and the pride I felt in (what Lorraine calls) the beauty of things Black. I still feel the same every time I see it performed on stage, on the screen, or when I talk with students.
(Huntington Theater Company’s presentation of “A Raisin in the Sun’ continues through April 7 with shows every Tuesday through Sunday at the BU Theater, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston. For tickets call (617) 266-0800.)