It’s not often that two contemporary dramas can be said to owe their direct inspiration to a play written half a century earlier. But then “A Raisin in the Sun’’ is no ordinary play.
Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 masterpiece raised questions — about racial inequality, women’s aspirations, class, assimilation, and the matter of who does and does not have access to the American dream — that have yet to be decisively answered.
The writer framing those enduring questions in such dramatically compelling fashion was strikingly young: When “Raisin’’ premiered, making her the first African-American female playwright ever to be produced on Broadway, Hansberry was not yet 30. Nor was she far away from a tragically early death, of cancer, at age 34.
But how brightly she burned for that brief period, and how fascinating it is to see and hear the coolly unflappable and incisive Hansberry in the snippets of archival interviews that are scattered throughout “A Raisin in the Sun Revisited: The Raisin Cycle at Center Stage,’’ airing Friday at 9 p.m. on Channel 2. “Certainly my play is actively a protest play,’’ she says in one interview. “There’s no contradiction between protest and art, and good art. You know, that’s an artificial argument. You either write a good play or a bad play.’’
This documentary is hobbled by a couple of contradictions of its own, but on balance it’s an absorbing attempt to assess Hansberry’s legacy through the prism of “The Raisin Cycle,’’ an ambitious production earlier this year at Baltimore’s Center Stage that paired two plays written in response to “Raisin’’: Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park’’ and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s “Beneatha’s Place.’’
Kwei-Armah, who is the artistic director at Center Stage, explains that he envisioned “The Raisin Cycle’’ as “a conversation among the three plays.’’ In the documentary, that conversation takes the form of rehearsals and performances of “Clybourne Park’’ and “Beneatha’s Place,’’ augmented by commentary from Kwei-Armah; from Derrick Sanders, who directed both plays; from the cast, who performed in both plays; and from former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich, now a writer at large for New York magazine.
At rehearsal, Sanders is seen urging actors not to throttle back at key moments. There are suggestions that the interracial cast felt some discomfort enacting the racially charged material; after one scene, a white actor embraces a black actress, then explains: “We have to do a lot of hugging out in this rehearsal process.’’
The actors have some smart things to say about the motivations of their characters and about the broader questions, as actors often do. Yet “A Raisin in the Sun Revisited’’ works better as a making-of documentary than as a truly searching examination of racial issues. Moreover, for a documentary that ostensibly seeks to celebrate the power of theater to illuminate such issues, “A Raisin in the Sun Revisited’’ is overly reliant on footage from the 1961 film version of “Raisin,’’ which Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s husband and literary executor, once described as “drastically cut and largely one-dimensional.’’
Hansberry’s “Raisin’’ revolves around the momentous decision by the Youngers, a black family on the South Side of Chicago, to move to a house in a (fictional) all-white neighborhood called Clybourne Park, despite the attempt by the leader of a neighborhood association to keep them out by buying them out. Norris’s “Clybourne Park’’ takes place in that house. In the first act, set in 1959, the home’s white sellers come under fierce pressure from that same neighborhood association leader not to sell to the Youngers. In Act 2, set a half century later, the neighborhood is mostly black, and an upscale white couple has bought the house, determined to raze it and build a much larger version, as part of a wave of gentrification.
Norris does not appear in the documentary. A spokeswoman said the producers approached the playwright about appearing in the film but he declined. In “A Raisin in the Sun Revisited,” Kwei-Armah does not repeat his assertion — made earlier to The New York Times — that while he doesn’t think it was Norris’s intention, “connotationally, the play says that whites build and blacks destroy.’’
Kwei-Armah took the character of Beneatha Younger, the intellectually adventurous college-age daughter from “Raisin’’ (modeled by Hansberry on herself) and imagined that she married Joseph Asagai, her Nigerian suitor, and lived with him in West Africa as Nigeria was about to achieve independence from colonial rule. In Act 2, Beneatha, now in her 70s and a dean of social sciences at an American university, is engaged in a conversation about the future role of racial studies. When a white colleague implies that she owes her deanship solely to affirmative action, Beneatha’s fury is palpable, in the scene shown in “A Raisin in the Sun Revisited.’’
Jessica Frances Dukes, who plays the title character in “Beneatha’s Place,’’ says she asks herself: “Am I making Lorraine proud in the way that I’m playing Beneatha today?’’
That remark underscores how much Lorraine Hansberry remains with us. Earlier this year there was a stellar production of “A Raisin in the Sun’’ at Huntington Theatre Company, directed by Liesl Tommy. A Broadway revival is slated for next spring, starring Denzel Washington and Diahann Carroll and directed by Kenny Leon.
In “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” Hansberry described how she “turned the last page out of the typewriter” upon finishing “Raisin,” which she called “a play that I was sure no one would quite understand…” Perhaps, but “A Raisin in the Sun Revisited’’ suggests that we’re still trying.