rowing up in New York City, Gregg Daniel was an admirer of the classic play “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry, for its universally affecting story of an African-American family faced with a series of life-altering decisions when they attempt to make the move into a white neighborhood for the first time. Daniel appreciated its many rich and resonant themes across several socioeconomic issues, but little did he know that someday he would be directing a revival of it at one of the most respected repertory theaters in America.
Yet on Sunday, his take on the classic play will make its debut at A Noise Within theatre in Pasadena. Running through April 8, “Raisin” reveals that while much has appeared to improve for black America since it made its debut in 1959, many of the same racial prejudices remain on a subtler yet still insidious level.
“I took it on because it’s so timely, and I didn’t want to approach it as a museum piece because everyone’s seen it,” says Daniel. “It’s one of the 10 most produced plays in America each year. I didn’t want to approach it like it happened only in the ’50s. It’s uncanny that it’s so resonant with what we’re doing now — racism, bigotry — and it’s almost scary how resonant it is.
“Hansberry was just 34 years old, and it’s amazing to think that a young woman could write such an insightful play,” says Daniel, a native of Flint, Mich. who moved to Los Angeles after attending New York University School of the Arts. “It changed the face of American theater after she wrote ‘Raisin,’ but I decided let’s approach it like a new play. We set it in 1964 due to the Civil Rights Act passing then, yet decided to find what was most contemporary.”
Indeed, setting the play in 1964 opens the story to several major events that were occurring at that moment in history. The Vietnam War was flaring up, but Hansberry’s play focused on the travails of one particular family facing the test of whether to accept a large sum of money to remain in their poorer black neighborhood rather than crossing racial and economic lines into a chance at full equality in a white one.
Daniel also enjoyed the rare opportunity of directing the Hansberry play “Les Blancs” for Rogue Machine theater in Los Angeles six months ago. She died of cancer while writing that play, leaving her husband Robert Nimeroff to complete it from her notes, and as a result it is rarely performed despite also touching on numerous issues.
“It was amazing where she was heading before her untimely death, with ‘Les Blancs’ covering feminism and pan-Africanism before we lost that voice,” says Daniel. “’Raisin’ was remarkably prescient in identifying issues that would continue to shape African-American life. Black men’s struggles for self-assertion in households dominated by strong women, the movement to separate African from American identities, Christianity as both an oppressive and redemptive power and the restlessness of women imprisoned by domesticity are all in it.”
Having just completed his third week of rehearsals with his cast, Daniel finds that his actors are providing him with new insights on the play “by inhabiting those characters in ways I never thought of before.” His production is relying on costumes to convey much of the play’s time frame, since it’s a one-set play that occurs inside a cramped apartment.
“The costumes were important for showing the passage of time and opened issues as well of the early ’60s,” says Daniel. “The set designer noted that usually the apartment in ‘Raisin’ is shown as cramped and crowded, closing in on people, but we wanted to open it up. What you see is certain areas that don’t have walls existing there, almost like the audience is voyeurs looking in on these people’s lives.”
Daniel added directing to his career after asking directors how they made their decisions “for about 15-20 years” and building a storehouse of insights. He also took classes in directing at the UCLA Extension program and feels that that combination of master seminars in directing as well as two decades of prior acting experience gave him a well-rounded and informed approach.
“It’s such a kind of a piece, like ‘West Side Story’ or ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ that you can see over and over again and not have it get old,” says Daniel. “Who doesn’t want the best thing for their family, generational conflicts, be an entrepreneur and gain things in their life that they just don’t have. Does it change really? No. This particular group and how they go about what they want is going to be eye opening for anybody doing anything with their lives.”
“A Raisin in the Sun” opens Sunday and runs through April 8 at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Tickets are $25 to $84. Call (626) 356-3100 or visit anoisewithin.org.