Ex­cerpt from new book ‘Rise Up!’

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - By Chris Jones The fol­low­ing is ex­cerpted from “Rise Up!: Broad­way and Amer­i­can So­ci­ety from 'Angels in Amer­ica’ to ‘Hamil­ton.’” The book about theater and so­cial progress is by the Tri­bune’s Chris Jones and will be pub­lished Nov. 15, 2018 by Methuen Dram

It was date night in Man­hat­tan for Barack and Michelle Obama. The pres­i­dent, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported, was wear­ing a suit and the First Lady was clad in a “sparkly black top and a chic black leather jacket.” They were out on the town.

Their Fri­day night-off this April 11 be­gan at Ma­ialino, a swanky Ital­ian trat­to­ria in the Gramercy Park Ho­tel. From there, the pres­i­den­tial mo­tor­cade headed to a cor­doned-off 47th Street and to the Ethel Bar­ry­more The­atre, where the Oba­mas’ friend Den­zel Washington was head­lin­ing a re­vival of Lor­raine Hans­berry’s po­etic drama about a strug­gling black Chicago fam­ily with dreams of leav­ing their cramped, roach-filled apart­ment and mov­ing to a new house, dreams so force­ful and de­ter­mined that they might just over­come the re­sis­tance of a white neigh­bor­hood that did not want them. In 1959, when the fa­mous Supreme Court case known as Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion still was less than five years old, “A Raisin in the Sun” had be­come the first play by an African Amer­i­can woman ever to ap­pear on Broad­way.

With Sid­ney Poitier play­ing the role now played by Washington, “A Raisin in the Sun” would try out at the Black­stone The­atre in Hans­berry’s home town of Chicago, where it strug­gled to at­tract an au­di­ence for its early per­for­mances, with most of the tick­ets be­ing given away. But just a few days later, it would be so buoyed by a critic named Clau­dia Cas­sidy at the con­ser­va­tive Chicago Tri­bune, a critic whom Hans­berry had feared to the point where she had writ­ten a fake re­view in Cas­sidy’s acidic style de­cry­ing her own play, box of­fice re­ceipts would lend courage to the lead pro­ducer, Philip Rose, who had been strug­gling to raise enough money for a Broad­way run.

Cas­sidy had said the play sug­gested “some­thing ur­gent was on its way,” and that she ad­mired the tal­ent of its writer. “This is theater with re­ver­ber­a­tions,” Cas­sidy had writ­ten, “echoes and a tug at the re­mem­ber­ing heart.”

Cas­sidy would prove more cor­rect than she could pos­si­bly have re­al­ized when it came to re­ver­ber­a­tions. Hans­berry’s most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter was Wal­ter Lee Younger, a chauf­feur who was too smart for his job and whose frus­tra­tion with doors be­ing slammed in his face boiled over into the kind of rag­ing dys­func­tion that would spark many an Au­gust Wil­son mono­logue. He would be­come a pro­to­type of all kinds of re­bel­lion, much of it to fol­low a decade or so af­ter the Broad­way suc­cess of a play far ahead of its time.

That night in 2014, Washington was (and seemed on stage) at least two decades older than Hans­berry had in­tended Wal­ter to be, but Wal­ter Lee Younger was the iconic role Washington had wanted to play, and that de­sire, cou­pled with Washington’s for­mi­da­ble star- power and clout at the box of­fice, is what had made the re­vival vi­able. Ev­ery­one knew that with­out Washington, none of this would have been hap­pen­ing, in­clud­ing the visit of the Oba­mas.

Pro­jected on the pre-show cur­tain that April evening was a quote from the poem by Langston Hughes from which Hans­berry, a child of the De­pres­sion, a daugh­ter of Chicago’s highly seg­re­gated South Side, a woman who said she had of­ten seen ex­am­ples of man’s in­hu­man­ity to man, had bor­rowed the ti­tle of her rev­o­lu­tion­ary play: “What hap­pens to a dream de­ferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” To many in the theater be­fore the show that re­mark­able night, both out front and back­stage, it seemed like the dream de­ferred was about to walk through the door.

To any­one who had read Hans­berry’s writ­ing, there could be no doubt that Obama was a pres­i­dent she would have loved.

Al­though her var­i­ous radical mem­ber­ships, as­so­ci­a­tions, and procla­ma­tions had put her on the radar of the no­to­ri­ous FBI di­rec­tor J. Edgar Hoover when she was just 22 years old, Hans­berry was a hu­man­ist who con­sis­tently and con­stantly ar­tic­u­lated her con­vic­tion that a racist so­ci­ety de­hu­man­izes ev­ery­body, whites as well as blacks. She of­ten re­peated her be­lief that small changes even­tu­ally top­ple old prej­u­dices, and she thought that to write about the pain of racism did not mean that you could not also write about the in­ex­orable march of progress. Plus she un­der­stood peo­ple in a no­table non­judg­men­tal way — es­pe­cially mar­ried men. In one of the most mov­ing lines of the play, Ruth says to her hus­band, Wal­ter Lee, “How did we get to a place where we are scared to talk softly to each other?” It was a line that would be greeted by mur­murs of recog­ni­tion from the au­di­ence in 2014, just as it had in 1959.

Prior to the 1959 open­ing of “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broad­way, Hans­berry had writ­ten a let­ter to her mother: “Mama,” she had writ­ten, “it is a play that tells the truth about peo­ple, Ne­groes and life and I think it will help a lot of peo­ple to un­der­stand how we are just as com­pli­cated as they are — and just as mixed up — but above all, that we have among our mis­er­able and down­trod­den ranks — peo­ple who are the very essence of hu­man dig­nity.”

The ne­ces­sity of em­pa­thy, of fur­ther­ing the Amer­i­can prom­ise of for hu­man dig­nity for all, would be a con­stant theme of the pres­i­dency of Barack Obama, who would be called upon, among many such du­ties, to ex­plain to the rest of the mostly obliv­i­ous coun­try the pain felt by African Amer­i­cans af­ter the 2012 Florida shoot­ing of the un­armed Trayvon Martin, shot by a neigh­bor­hood-watch vol­un­teer. He did so. None­the­less, Obama’s firm con­vic­tion was that he was the pres­i­dent of all Amer­i­cans and must be seen as such, and thus it did not be­hoove him to use any kind of ex­clu­sion­ary lan­guage that might en­cour­age Amer­i­cans to pit them­selves against each other.

Through­out his pres­i­dency, Obama rarely used the lan­guage of iden­tity pol­i­tics. He did not need to do so.

The cast of “A Raisin in the Sun” — work­ing along­side Washington were the high-pow­ered ac­tresses LaTanya Richard­son Jack­son, So­phie Okonedo, and Anika Noni Rose — had been hear­ing ru­mors all week about a VIP guest that Fri­day night. The lead pro­ducer, Scott Rudin, had been told who was coming, but had also been sworn to se­crecy.

But by the mid­dle of the day it­self, word had got­ten around the Broad­way com­mu­nity that the guest was to be the pres­i­dent of the United States and the First Lady. Kenny Leon, the di­rec­tor of the pro­duc­tion, hur­riedly flew back from his va­ca­tion, so he could sit by the Oba­mas. Rudin, who put the re­vival to­gether in con­sul­ta­tion with Washington, and who had hired Leon, headed early to the theater, where he was des­tined to spend much of the night in tears.

Those lucky enough to have bought ordinary tick­ets that night re­al­ized some­thing was up when they found a tem­po­rary white tent in front of the theater, con­tain­ing oblig­a­tory metal de­tec­tors. A few min­utes af­ter the ad­ver­tised cur­tain time, ev­ery­one was asked to put away their cell­phones and told to take their seats.


Lor­raine Hans­berry leans over her type­writer in her Green­wich Vil­lage apart­ment on Bleecker Street dur­ing her April 1959 pho­to­shoot for Vogue.

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