When I first chose to direct A Raisin in the Sun I wanted to put the show on because I had the right students to make it happen. The demographics of the school supported an all black cast of actors, and I thought it a wonderful opportunity to put on a timely show. Lorraine Hansberry’s script turns out to be timeless as its content is still conceivable in our society today. I remember colleagues asking me if I was going to cast the show ‘color-blind’ a term I have grown to dislike. I said I would cast the best person in each role and for this audition I had students come out of the woodwork. Everyone was excited about the show including me.
The auditions proved to be very competitive. I had many students I had never seen in the program before show up as it became an exciting word of mouth opportunity. I posted my cast list and an adventure in theater I hadn’t experienced before slowly began to evolve. In the process of rehearsal I found myself asking students to do something a white director couldn’t really conceptualize from the acknowledgment of hoping to get out of poverty to dealing with a white consultant for a neighborhood this black family could afford to live in based upon an inheritance. They never dreamed of being shunned by a white neighborhood that thought their lives would tumble into hell because of an influx of black families moving in, theirs being the first.
I remember asking my students to play out roles that I had to realize went against everything they believed. They were taking on characters that represented all of the discrimination and systemic injustice the majority of their families and community lived with every day. I was asking my students to act out their worst fears on stage. As a white director I went home many nights wondering if I was doing the right thing, holding rehearsals where the majority of the players would go home frustrated and angry every night. I hadn’t really thought about why. One day I brought one of my students home, he missed his ride and he told me how difficult it was to play a Nigerian student with a significant role in the play. He said it is hard enough to be black in the show now I have to be one from a native country? We talked about it for some time outside his home in a tough part of the neighborhood. He smiled and said good night and I waited for him to enter his house before I departed.
From that point on I began to tell the students this is their show and I was only going to advise them. They took ownership, including the sole white character who withstood the scrutiny of the family the entire performance. I remember thinking back to my colleagues who didn’t think I had enough students to cast the show and hoping they would attend. The majority did not go to the show.
What I did learn from directing this show is that when we put something on stage we have to ready ourselves for the questions that evolve. We had many sit down round table discussions about the characters and their roles in setting the tone. The students took the lead and defined their characters. I basically provided them a set. It was the most fascinating show I ever directed because I learned more than I might ever imagine. The students educated themselves and many expressed a sense of empowerment.
This show taught me that I’m not always right and being a good listener is invaluable to staging a play.
© Thom Amundsen 4/2022