The Nate Holden Performing Arts Center (NHPAC) is buzzing these days. Rehearsals are happening in one room, wardrobe fittings in another, while lighting and sound design is being worked out and a set replicating a 1950s flat on the Southside of Chicago is being installed and erected.
Everyone involved is moving at a deliberate pace in anticipation of the opening of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun on March 25.
Wren Brown is founder/producer of Ebony Repertory Theater (ERT), an Equity company that is also the resident company and operator of the NHPAC. He says, “A Raisin in the Sun is the absolute American classic, not a black American classic. It’s an American classic that marries itself to the mission of the Ebony Repertory Theatre, which is to produce the works that represent the canon of our work in the traditional American sense and the African Diaspora. The play is groundbreaking. Hansberry was far-seeing into the future in terms of the work she wrote. It’s an honored classic and the kind of work our fast-developing audience deserves.”
The production is directed by Phylicia Rashad, who in 2004 became the first African-American actress to win the Tony Award for best performance by a leading actress in a play, for her role in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Rashad resumed the role in the 2008 television adaptation which earned her the 2009 NAACP Image Award for outstanding actress in a television movie, miniseries or dramatic special.
Brown says he considered it a coup to get Rashad. “Ms. Rashad and Israel Hicks became friendly when she saw a production of his Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” says Brown. “She was enamored of his work. They were enamored of each other and had a regard for each other’s artistry. Upon his death we were very shaken to lose someone of such great vision and gifts.”
Brown said Hicks, who was ERT’s co-founder and artistic director until his death last summer, spoke on several occasions about wanting to work with Rashad. “We would have loved for her to appear on stage,” he says. “We decided to reach out to Phylicia to direct because of her body of work and her obvious connection with the play. The Tony Award was just sublime. The work was beyond being a good actress. She had insight into the human condition and into the black American condition. Last August or September we had the great, good fortune of her saying yes.”
Presented by ERT, this production’s fruition is somewhat bittersweet for Brown, who originally planned the company’s current season with Hicks. “Israel felt it was vitally important to present plays written by black people about the black experience,” says Brown. “This is the play he felt was above all others. He felt this was the one play within the American canon that was a must-do.”
Brown describes A Raisin in the Sun, set in 1950s Chicago, as a groundbreaking play that portrays an African-American family’s pursuit of their shared dream for a better life amid conflicting aspirations, betrayal and racism.
The play’s title comes from the poem Harlem (also known as A Dream Deferred) by Langston Hughes. “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore– And then run?”
While it was initially written as a play in the late 1950s, it was the 1961 movie starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Louis Gossett Jr., Claudia McNeil and Ivan Dixon that put the material on the larger map. The story about the Younger family’s struggle to remain a proud people in the face of racism while changing their lives for the better, has become a timeless, lauded treasure.
For that reason Brown says he has assembled what he calls “the best at what they do” to bring the production to life. The cast for the ERT production includes 1988 Tony Award-winning actress (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) L. Scott Caldwell, Kevin Carroll, Deidrie Henry, Ellis Williams, Jason Dirden, Amad Jackson, Kenya Alexander, Brandon Brown and Scott Mosenson.
“We have a Tony Award-winning actress directing a Tony Award-winning actress,” says Brown. “That’s magic.”
Brown also lauds the technical team, which includes Academy Award-nominated costume designer Ruth Carter, set designer Michael Ganio, lighting designer Elizabeth Harper and sound designer Bob Blackburn.
Currently in Atlanta working on the CBS pilot Hail Mary for CBS and Joel Silver, Carter says she was excited to get a call from Brown to join the show. “When I got the call to work on this show I didn’t hesitate,” says Carter, who received Academy Award nominations for costume design for both Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. “I was not only excited because of the material; I was also excited because I’d be working with Phylicia Rashad again.”
For Carter, who worked with Rashad on Frankie and Alice two years ago, this will be her second production with ERT. She first worked with the company on its 2008 production of Two Trains Running starring Glynn Turman. “I don’t do shows I don’t like,” offers Carter. “When deciding on my projects, I have to ask, ‘Do I like it?’ You can’t create something that is pleasing and has harmony that other people will like, if you don’t like it. Does it entertain me? Can I see the characters in my mind’s eye? And lastly I ask, ‘Am I inspired’?”
Both Hicks and Rashad requested Carter, a Hampton graduate who rarely works on theatrical productions. “When I spoke to Phylicia, she was very clear what she wanted,” says Carter. “She wanted new discovery. She wanted me to find new things about Raisin in the Sun.”
So Carter immediately went to work, researching and delving into an enormous amount of source material. “I like to tell a story with clothes,” says Carter, who adds she gets input from not only the director, but also the actors. “I felt like making this family trailblazers. I’ve got them in bigger pants, broader shoulders and full circle skirts. When I design I’m aware there are relationship colors to think about. We never see ourselves in three dimensions. It takes someone else to see how you look standing next to your partner. It’s my job to see choices.”
Set designer Michael Ganio, who is currently in Denver working on Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined, is joining ERT for the first time. Ganio, who met Hicks in 1994, actually worked with him on the 2009 production of A Raisin in the Sun at the Denver Center Theater Company. The two have worked on numerous shows together, including many of August Wilson’s plays: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars and Radio Golf.
Ganio says that after conferring with Hicks, his job was to ‘bring the feeling of claustrophobia’ to the audience by designing a set that represents a cramped, crowded tenement apartment. “In conversation with Israel one of the things we wanted to make very clear was that this was a small apartment with too many people in it,” says Ganio, who has a master’s degree in theater set design from New York University. “The history of housing in South Chicago is very interesting. In the ’20s-’40s housing was at a premium. People started sub-dividing apartments that were three and four bedrooms. This set, this little apartment is not a full apartment. It’s part of an apartment that’s been sub-divided once already. I wanted the sense of claustrophobia to affect the actors.”
The set ERT is using is the actual one from Hicks’ Denver show. Hicks and Brown were so impressed with Ganio’s set that is was preserved. For the Los Angeles run of Raisin, the set was disassembled in Denver, then shipped and resurrected in LA. “In order for this stage to work out well, we made a few minor alterations to it,” says Ganio, who is from Ashland, Oregon but grew up in Walnut Creek, CA. “Then [production manager] Sheldon Lane, Wren and me worked hard to get it placed correctly. No two theaters are alike so when you design a set for another theater and then you move it, you have to think on your feet.”
The shipping process was like moving an entire house, Ganio says. Everything was transferred from all of the walls, the complete kitchen, furniture, decorations, an offstage bathroom, two offstage bedrooms, carpets and more.
The original set was on a thrust stage, “as if it’s going toward the audience, like a Greek amphitheater that wraps half way around the stage.” But ERT’s stage is in a proscenium theater. “In this kind of theater the audience directly faces the stage,” Ganio points out. “Every vantage point is the same. We had to make some changes.”
Today, lighting designer Elizabeth Harper, a 2010 Ovation Award nominee for The Twentieth Century Way (Theatre @ Boston Court), is currently moving about Ganio’s stage, deliberately looking for dark spots. Every once in a while she’ll say, “Need some right here,” and a pocket of light appears. Having previously worked with Brown, Harper, too, was eager to work on this production. She and Brown had worked together on the Soul of Rodgers music revue.
Harper said her lighting process is much like Ganio’s in that she wanted to create a cramped space using lights. “We’re using a set that had already been designed,” says Harper. “I looked at the set and started planning where the light sources were coming from. I needed to get a cramped feeling in the apartment. There’s only one tiny window in the apartment. I had to think about treating the walls. I had to think about the time of day and how much time had lapsed between each act.”
Harper, 27, who graduated from New York University and has worked as an architectural lighting designer, likes light. “Lighting is a powerful tool,” she says. “The psychological aspects of it I find interesting. I like how malleable it is. Everything changes depending on the lights. I like being able to pull focus and manipulate and tell a story. Sometimes the effect doesn’t even register; it’s on a subconscious level. I prefer working that way. That’s psychology and the subconscious is important and interesting to me.”
Bob Blackburn is the sound designer for Raisin. An associate artist with Playwrights’ Arena, Blackburn says he has designed more than 90 shows in Los Angeles over a 17 year period. A three-time Ovation nominee and two-time winner, for Request Concert in 1998 and Street Stories in 2002, Blackburn, who has worked at many intimate theaters, considers working with ERT a “step up. This is a beautiful house,” he says referring to the NHPAC. “The equipment I’m using is much better. Plus, I get the chance to work with Phylicia Rashad.”
Blackburn, whose background is in music and radio, is charged with finding just the right melodic sounds for A Raisin in the Sun. So far, he’s sure he’ll be using music from Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges. “You really can’t go wrong with music from either one of them,” says Blackburn, who had seen a production of the show but had not seen the film prior to getting his position. “I recognize that music and sound in general play a vital role in any production.”
While music will have an intimate role in the show, Blackburn says Rashad is not interested in a “sound-heavy play. It’s mostly effects like the doorbell, phone, vacuum cleaner and record player as well as some music for scene changes,” he says. “The pre-show music will be instrumental and maybe some gospel.”
Although Blackburn, 60, doesn’t come from a theater background, he has been at the sound game for a while. His hope is that audiences will come to appreciate and understand its importance. “If you’re in a theater and the sound is working properly, you’re in that place,” says Blackburn, who entered the theatrical world in 1992 when he worked at the old Stella Adler Theater. “You can close your eyes and still be in that place. It’s theater of the mind. Lights are artificial and so is the set. The costumes are costumes, but sound creates the illusion of place. It places you somewhere. It creates an environment where people can live. It creates dramatic underscores. That’s why I love sound. It feeds me. I get it. I love it.”
A Raisin in the Sun, produced by Wren T. Brown for Ebony Repertory Theatre, opens March 25; (previews March 23-24) plays Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 3 pm, through April 17. Tickets: $45-$75. Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles; 323.964.9766 or ebonyrep.org.