Since its Broadway debut in 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s Tony-nominated A RAISIN IN THE SUN has been a favorite of audiences and critics alike, so much so that it is consistently included in Top 10 lists of the most important plays in the history of the American theatre. That said, it’s no wonder Nashville Repertory Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director, René D. Copeland chose it as The Rep’s current production.
With two weeks remaining in the show’s month-long run, I recently had a chance to chat with A RAISIN IN THE SUN cast members Tamiko Robinson Steele, Matthew Carlton, Brandon Hirsch, James Rudolph, and Lauren F. Jones about their roles, co-stars (former Tennessee Titans Eddie George among them) and the always-relevant subject matter of racism, gentrification, self-elevation and family that are at the core of the show.
RAPID FIRE 20 Q WITH CAST MEMBERS OF NASHVILLE REP’S A RAISIN IN THE SUN
JONATHAN PINKERTON: Tell me a little about Ruth.
TAMIKO ROBINSON STEELE: Ruth is love. She is truth. With the weight of the world on her shoulders, she continues to barrel through life. She is weary. She is at a crossroads and has to figure out how to find her voice & regain a sense of self.
JP: As Ruth, you’re cast alongside Eddie George. What’s it like to have the former Tennessee Titan as your leading man?
TAMIKO ROBINSON STEELE: Not that great. KIDDING!! It’s really nice actually. In the sense that he completely understands what it means to work as a team. He’s quite the generous scene partner.
JP: While Loraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN originated as a stage play, the author also penned the screenplay for the 1961 film adaptation. Did you go back and watch the film, or either of the more recent TV film adaptations in preparation for the role?
TAMIKO ROBINSON STEELE: I did not. I have seen the Sidney Poitier version (which was BRILLIANT), but I wanted to move organically through this process without any outside influence. Rely on myself for coloring in of the character.
JP: It has often been pointed out that Hansberry’s Ruth shares more than just a name with Ruth of biblical times. What similarities between the two do you see most?
TAMIKO ROBINSON STEELE:They’re loyal. They feel. They both see. They’re protective of the people they love. They’re spirits are kind. They love.
MATTHEW CARLTON, KARL LINDER in A RAISIN IN THE SUN
JP: Tell me a little about Karl Lindner.
MATTHEW CARLTON: He’s an unassuming man who tries to convince the Youngers not to move into a white neighborhood.
JP: While the character of Karl Lindner could easily be seen as simply a stereotypical bigot, Hansberry chose to develop him and reveal much more. What’s your favorite aspect of the character?
MATTHEW CARLTON: The contradictory nature of his actions vs his words.
JP: Interestingly, Circle Players is presenting CLYBOURNE PARK around the same time you’ll be appearing in A RAISIN IN THE SUN. The former, written by Bruce Norris, is a spin-off of sorts to Hansberry’s original work and once again features the character of Karl Linder. Have you read or seen it?
MATTHEW CARLTON: I saw the REP’s production a few seasons ago. And as a side note, we did a nine month run of the Doyle & Debbie Show at the Royal George theatre just one street over from Clybourne Street.
JP: What’s the biggest misconception about Karl Lindner?
MATTHEW CARLTON: That he isn’t a “real” racist and that the mindset he represents is of some distant past. Those insidious concepts of “us & them” are still a part of today’s society.
JP: Who is Joseph Asagai?
BRANDON HIRSCH: Joseph Asagai is a Nigerian student, intellectual, and idealist in pursuit of the affection of the youngest female Younger, Beneatha.
JP: Why do you supposed Hansberry chose to include the distinct characters of George and Joseph as potential suitors for Beneatha?
BRANDON HIRSCH: In so many ways, these characters represent a class of culture and the clash of consciousness, common in the black community, as well as in American society at-large. I won’t be so bold as to attempt to quantify the intentions of the author, but I do believe the inclusion of these characters gives us a vivid illustration of the possibilities that exist at the polar ends of divergent personal and societal value systems and the practical challenges to both reconciling the extremes and integrating them into our lives.
JP: Joseph encourages Beneatha to live her dreams instead of waiting for someone else to make them happen. Who in your life has been most instrumental in instilling that way of thinking as it applies to your own life?
BRANDON HIRSCH: As you get older, it seems that the people encouraging me to “live my dreams” are fewer and fewer, so the value of those people who did in my formative years has increased. With that said, no two people have inspired me more than John and Joan Hirsch, my parents.
JP: Joseph has so many great lines in the play. Do you have a favorite?
BRANDON HIRSCH: “Children see things very well sometimes-and idealists even better.”
JP: Who is George to you?
JAMES RUDOLPH: George is a college boy with a bright future but not a lot of empathy. He’s intelligent enough to know what other people are going through; he just doesn’t care.
JP: Back in 2015, you shared the stage with your A RAISIN IN THE SUN co-star, Eddie George. Do you have a favorite memory of that show?
JAMES RUDOLPH: I do actually. In THE WHIPPING MAN, Eddie’s character body slammed my character every show. We must have sold it very well because every night I would have a couple of patrons run to me to make sure I was alright. We always got a good giggle off of that.
JP: When I chatted with Brandon, I asked why he supposed Hansberry opted to include two such different characters as Joseph and George as love interests for Beneatha, so I’m interested in your take on the same question?
JAMES RUDOLPH: I believe that Ms. Hansberry chose two so different characters was to help Beneatha in the road finding herself. I feel like each man illustrates a choice she feels she has to consider: to be ‘natural’ or to ‘assimilate’. And what would each mean? What do you lose with either choice? Which is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? I feel like in her finding out more about each guy she also finds out more about herself.
JP: What’s the one moment in the show, yours or someone else’s that gets you every time you hear the lines uttered?
JAMES RUDOLPH: When Lena confronts Walter Lee about the money. My goodness…such a beautifully written moment and my cast mates are magic in it.
JP: What is it about Beneatha that drew you to the part?
LAUREN F. JONES: This role was my advanced acting college thesis project. So it is very good and I am very thankful to finally get the opportunity to embody the character for audiences. Being an African American female artist, her words, perspective and experiences are not far from my own.
JP: Since the play’s debut, there’s been some debate about the character name Beneatha. Some point out that it’s simply a more ethnic name than the rest of the family, alluding to her interest in her African heritage, while others seem to think it’s simply an oxymoron as nothing is beneath her. Do you think there’s any significance in the name?
LAUREN F. JONES: I do believe names have significance. Beneatha, Lena, Ruth, Walter and even Travis’ names have significance as I give credit to the playwright for choosing them intentionally. In my little research, I found that Beneatha means “Beauty, Excitement, Wonderment, curious and knowledge-seeking, joyful, playful, artistically inclined.”
JP: When I chatted with Matthew, I mentioned that CLYBOURNE PARK, a spin-off of sorts that’s currently playing across town features his A RAISIN IN THE SUN character. While researching to chat with you, I was reminded of the 2013 play by Kwame Kwei-Armah titled BENEATHA’S PLACE, which explores your character in the years following A RAISIN IN THE SUN. While it supposes Beneatha eventually ends up as Dean of Social Sciences at a California university after what seems likely to occur in Hansberry’s original, what do you think happens to Beneatha after A RAISIN IN THE SUN?
LAUREN F. JONES: My interpretation of Beneatha is that she is an eternal idealist, full of hope, and light and while sometimes bemused and bewildered by life’s hurdles is determined to learn to play the guitar. I believe Beneatha learns to play the guitar and croons in juke joints. Seeing as Beneatha is a fictional character created by Hansberry to signal the rise of liberated women.
But going along with the make believe, I think fictional Beneatha and real life representations of her that we see in our society now go anywhere she chooses. I believe she gets her own place to dwell and perhaps enjoys an occasional horse-back riding, while also warming her family to better relations.
JP: Alright, one last question, so I better make it a good one. While it may seem obvious, given the current state of race relations in the U.S. and around the world, why do you think Hansberry’s work is just as important today as it was nearly sixty years after its stage debut?
LAUREN F. JONES: The play is timely to say the least. It’s super easy to make fun of people when you are ignorant of their struggle.By the same token, it is extremely easy to poke friendly, to jest when they know deep, deep down, you respect the fool out of them. Even if you don’t understand or can’t relate to what someone else has been through. A healthy appreciation for the condition of slavery, war veterans, the role of women and the puzzled matrix of the mind of those that have worked the hardest to sustain and nourish a brutal tyranny of physical and psychological torment is required.
From my perspective, regardless of sexual orientation or creed there should be special emphasis to Women of Color, Women, Men of Color. All are equal in the eyes of creation however all have not had a nearly equal experience. Equality and Respect for each other’s differences starts with amplifying the gifts of your neighbor meanwhile acknowledging and amplifying the gifts inside yourself.
I think Race Relations will fail to improve if the prominent, dominant powers that be do not first acknowledge gender gaps and racial prejudice, face its bias and then understand the tiered process of seeing how that conditions one’s mind to be anti and pro whatever one chooses.
When black and brown people in this country are treated better, when the youth and adults come to a better understanding of how the other works and what the other has seen, survived and perhaps is destined to see differently, then and only then will we see a significant shift in the way people and their outer trappings are perceived. But the race to achieve in dire circumstances without sincere compassion for a fellow is an enemy to us all.
On that brilliantly eloquent and though-provoking note, my chat with members of the cast of Nashville Rep’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN came to an end. With two more weeks of shows remaining, there’s only nine more chances to see this beloved and vitally important work as presented by some of Nashville’s most talented thespians. Remaining showtimes are Thursday, April 13 at 6:30 p.m., Friday, April 14 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 15 at 2:30p.m. AND 7:30 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday, April 19 & 20 at 6:30 p.m., Friday, April 21 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 22 at 2:30 p.m. AND 7:30 p.m. Friday performances will include a post-show Talkback during which cast and creative take to the stage following the show to chat with the audiences, giving a behind-the-scenes take on the show, their characters and their thoughts behind them. Saturday performances conclude with a Meet and Greet in the lobby, offering patrons the chance to chat one-on-one with the cast.
Tickets to Nashville Rep’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN range in price from $45 to $55 and may be purchased by phone (615.782.4040), on line (Click Here) or in person at the Box Office (505 Deadrick Street) . Like other area theatre companies, Nashville Rep wants everyone, no matter what income level to be able to enjoy live theatre in Nashville. To that end, the company announced earlier this week that Thursday night, April 13 is “Pay What You Can Night”. Simply head to be box office between 5 p.m. and 6:25 p.m. and mention the promo code “HANSBERRY” to take advantage of this great savings.
Up next for Nashville Rep is their annual Ingram New Works Festival May 10-20 during which staged readings of new works by Stacy Osei-Kuffour, Andrew Rosendorf, Gabrielle Reisman, Nate Eppler and Ingram New Works Fellowship recipient Christopher Durang will be presented. For reservations and more, Click Here. Be sure to follow Nashville Rep on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
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