When Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” opened in New York on March 11, 1959, it was the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, and its director, Lloyd Richards, was the first black director to work there as well. Hansberry was also the first black playwright (and the youngest) to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Since then, the drama about a black family’s dream to move into a white neighborhood in pre-civil-rights-era Chicago has been translated into 30 languages and has been continually produced in church basements, community halls, school auditoriums, and professional theaters.
And now the play is sparking a reenergized debate about race relations in theaters here and nationwide. “Raisin” begins performances Friday at the Huntington Theatre Company. Meanwhile, “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2010 play examining the same Chicago neighborhood 50 years later, is receiving its Boston premiere in a SpeakEasy Stage Company production that runs through March 30 at the Boston Center for the Arts. A book published last year, “Reimagining ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ ’’ includes four plays that jump off from where “Raisin” ends, and another spinoff play, “Beneatha’s Place,” makes its world premiere in May at Center Stage in Baltimore.
Why, at a time when some pundits have declared that the reelection of the nation’s first black president signified the dawn of a post-racial America, is there so much interest in “Raisin” and the issues it raises? The play was inspired by Hansberry’s own experience with racism and housing discrimination. Her father was stonewalled when he tried to buy a house in a white neighborhood much like the one in the play. He sued and won a partial victory in the US Supreme Court.
“The play resonates for so many reasons,’’ says Liesl Tommy, who is directing the Huntington production. “The relationship between three generations and their desire to make their lives better is utterly timeless and universal. There is such a lot of pain now over defaults on mortgages, and I feel like race and class are irrelevant. That yearning for something that is yours — whether you can afford it or not — is built into the fiber of every American’s psyche.”
But the play is undeniably specific to a time and place — and to a black family. In the play, the Youngers, led by the matriarch Lena, live in a cramped, tumbledown apartment where privacy is nonexistent. The men and women in this world are forced by circumstances to do menial work: They scrub toilets, wash other people’s laundry, drive well-to-do white folks around.
And Tommy knows what that’s like. She grew up in South Africa under apartheid before her family moved to Newton when she was a teenager. Her family lived in tight quarters in South Africa; Tommy shared a bedroom with her grandmother, and various uncles slept in the living room when they were unemployed. “That lack of privacy can do damage to the family system,’’ she says. “The parents don’t have a place to go and argue, and that creates instability for the children. It keeps them from feeling safe and protected. They have too much information about all the crises going on.” The play, she says, resonates with her in a profoundly personal way. “What the Younger family goes through is similar to what black men and women experienced under apartheid. The oppression seeps into the home life. It spreads like a cancer. It is impossible to disconnect the dysfunction from the society outside from the connections in your home.”
When Tommy was a young artist working at fringe theaters in the Boston area, she was invited to audition for Kenny Leon’s 1995 production of “Raisin” at the Huntington. She didn’t get the part, but it spurred her desire to pursue a graduate degree in theater. “That was a huge moment in my life,’’ she says.
“Raisin” also influenced Cambridge resident Joi Gresham, who is director and literary trustee of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Properties Trust, and who grew up surrounded by Hansberry’s work. When Gresham was 11, her mother married Robert Nemiroff, who had been married to Hansberry from 1953 to 1962. Even after Hansberry and Nemiroff divorced, the two remained close friends and collaborators until the playwright’s death in 1965. Nemiroff championed Hansberry’s work for the rest of his life, and Gresham and her mother became a part of this effort when they moved into the house he had shared with the playwright in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. “Her presence was everywhere,’’ recalls Gresham during an interview in her Cambridge home, where a painting of Hansberry hangs over the mantel. She recalls feeling welcome in Croton-on-Hudson, which had a strong community of liberals and artists then, in the politically charged 1960s. But she was often the only black child in her class. “I identified very strongly with Lorraine,’’ she says. “I was very drawn to her story of being unique and being exceptional and being the ‘only one.’ ’’
Norris, the “Clybourne Park” playwright, had a completely different introduction to “Raisin,” which he considers one of the top 10 plays of the 20th century. Growing up in Texas in the 1970s, he read “Raisin” in school and identified with the character of Karl Lindner, the white man who attempts to keep the Younger family from moving into his neighborhood. “For whatever reason, perhaps my lack of imagination, I identified with the antagonist,’’ he says by phone from London, where he is working on his latest play, “The Low Road,’’ which premieres this month at the Royal Court Theatre. “Our social studies teacher showed us the movie, and she knew she was showing it to the culprits that brought misfortune to the Younger family.”
Many years later, in 1999, Norris was acting in a Williamstown Theatre Festival production of John Guare’s “Chaucer in Rome,” which explores what happens decades later to a character from Guare’s play “The House of Blue Leaves.” The production overlapped with a Williamstown production of “Raisin,’’ and Norris began wondering what would have happened to the Younger family five decades later. “It just percolated into my consciousness, and it seemed like a fruitful idea,’’ he says. “What happens if you turned it around and told it from the other point of view? I came from a privileged all-white neighborhood, so it was easy for me to tell a story about those people.”
“Clybourne Park,” which won the 2012 Tony Award for best play and the 2011 Olivier Award for best new play, enjoyed critical and commercial success in both New York and London, and it is being produced at regional theaters nationwide this season. In fact, SpeakEasy and the Huntington have done some joint publicity for their independent productions; in February, Tommy and M. Bevin O’Gara, the director of “Clybourne Park” at SpeakEasy, participated in a panel discussion about both plays at the Strand Theatre. But during an interview, Tommy chooses her words carefully when asked about “Clybourne Park.” “All I can say is, I’m glad that it has created a new interest in ‘Raisin in the Sun,’ which is getting produced everywhere,’’ she says.
At Center Stage in Baltimore, “Clybourne Park” will play in repertory with “Beneatha’s Place” this spring. That play, by Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, was written in direct response to “Clybourne Park.” “I saw the play in Britain, and I thought it captures the zeitgeist and creates a great conversation,’’ Kwei-Armah says. “I read that Bruce was inspired by Karl Lindner, the only white man in the play. I was attracted to Beneatha.” His play focuses on Lena’s Afrocentric daughter and charts her journey to Nigeria and later to the halls of academe in California. “She has a determination to fill the minds of the world and the university system with a global understanding of white supremacy and the history of Africa,’’ Kwei-Armah says.
In “Clybourne Park,” a white couple is about to build a grand new house on the property that the Younger family buys in “Raisin.” According to the stage directions, the Youngers’ old house, where Act 2 of “Clybourne Park” takes place, is marked by “an overall shabbiness.” It’s 50 years later, and the neighborhood has deteriorated, but is now being gentrified. “That sends a subliminal message that blacks destroy and whites build,’’ says Kwei-Armah. “I want to be clear that I don’t think that was Bruce’s inclination to say that. But there was a connotation attached, and I find it something interesting to debate.”
Norris says he welcomes the discussion: “More speech is good.” But he does contest Kwei-Armah’s interpretation of his play. “It was never my intention to say, ‘Whites build and blacks destroy.’ The truth is that people without a lot of money can’t make their neighborhoods as shiny as people who do have a lot of money.”
Norris says he hasn’t had any contact with the Hansberry estate and didn’t even know of its existence. Gresham, who has been Hansberry’s literary executor since her mother died in 2005, controls the rights to “Raisin”; she says she is in negotiations with Denzel Washington for a 2014 Broadway revival. She has seen “Clybourne Park,’’ but will not comment on it publicly. “There are some legalities involved, and I’ve been advised by my lawyers not to make a statement about the play,” she says.
Gresham says she did once refuse to grant the rights to “Raisin” to an Australian theater, because it was not planning to employ black actors. When that company asked permission to use “alternative casting,” she suggested it look at the Aboriginal question. She never heard back. Likewise, Norris put a stop to a production of “Clybourne Park” in Berlin last year, because a white actor was going to perform in blackface. “It was a perversion of my play, and I can make that decision. I’m inconveniently alive,” he says.
The continuing debate around these and other productions raises a question about “Raisin” that has persisted since it was first produced. Is the ending happy or tragic? The play, of course, takes its name from the opening lines of “Harlem,” a Langston Hughes poem: “What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?” The poem ends with a foreboding thought: “Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load./ Or does it explode?’’
Hansberry knew what it was like to integrate a neighborhood. “Howling mobs surrounded our house,’’ she wrote in “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.’’ “My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school.’’
Both “Raisin’’ and “Clybourne Park” center around the inflammable issue of territory and turf, which persists to this day, especially at a time when many people are faced with repossessed property or upside-down mortgages. “Obviously, there has been change,’’ says Huntington director Tommy. “We have a black man in the White House. But at the same time, the day-to-day struggles around race and class are still here.”
The play, she says, isn’t as simple as “movin’ on up” in 1970s sitcoms like “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times.’’ All of the plays written in response to “Raisin” underscore a painful truth: The Welcome Wagon did not roll up to greet the Younger family when they moved into Clybourne Park in 1959. The last scene is ripe with hope, yet riddled with despair. And the current debate around “Raisin” and the spinoff dramas raises yet another question. Does the play really end? Or is it about a future we’re still living and a future we’re headed toward?
SpeakEasy Stage Company
At: Roberts Studio Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through March 30. 617-933-8600, http://www.speakeasystage.com