Eleven years ago, Chip Miller and his high school classmates sat in the audience of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of “A Raisin in the Sun” as part of the theater’s education initiative. He was enthralled.
Now, Miller is preparing for his directorial debut at the Rep with the same show, a production that will double the theater’s push for young audiences by bringing in 4,500 area students to 10 matinee performances.
“This was the theater that helped me fall in love with theater,” he said. “Getting to come back for my first play directing, to be this play that I saw a decade ago, is really exciting and a gift really, because it is a perfect play.”
Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic 1959 tale of one family’s yearning for the American dream begins Friday and runs through April 16 at the Spencer Theatre. In a plot that Miller calls very much “of this moment,” members of the black Younger family face discrimination and poverty as they attempt to better their situation by moving into a predominantly white neighborhood.
Though the Rep produced “Raisin” in 2006, Marissa Wolf (who is co-directing with Miller) thought the play’s relevance was too important to ignore. When she started planning the production more than a year ago, she wanted the play to shine light on the segregationist history and legacy in Kansas City. After the 2016 election, it became about more.
“What I consider to be an American classic like this should be examined for every generation of kids coming up,” she said. “Especially in this moment in time, in this charged environment where there’s a lot of hate speech and violence and anxiety about ‘the other,’ it feels urgent in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.”
In addition to the directing partnership between Miller and Wolf, the cast is almost entirely Kansas Citian. Tosin Morohunfola, a KC native who lives in Chicago and plays the frustrated Walter Younger, is the only non-local actor. (Miller, as the Rep’s assistant artistic director, saw him perform in Chicago and invited him home for “Raisin.”)
Spanning three acts, “Raisin” is not only physically challenging for its actors but emotionally challenging as well. Playing iconic roles in a pivotal play about the history of the American black experience comes with pressure, but cast members say it’s an honor to step into their characters’ shoes.
Lanise Antoine Shelley said she had been chasing the role of Walter’s wife, Ruth, for a while. With the Rep, everything just fell into place. That didn’t mean she was entirely prepared for the journey she would have to take as Ruth.
“She is taking on this emotional abuse from Walter and (I’m) putting aside my 21st century views and what it would be like for me and set myself in the 1950s and ’60s, where women aspire only to be a housewife. … That is something I can’t adhere to now,” she said. “I’m a very independent woman, but (I need) to see Ruth as somebody who finds strength in elegance and strength in this co-dependency.”
Unlike other productions, the Rep’s “Raisin” will bring back a rarely included scene from the original Broadway show. In it, the Youngers’ black neighbor harshly confronts them about the realities of moving to a white neighborhood. Miller said the decision to include the scene came from a desire to emphasize the Youngers’ position as pioneers of their time.
“To have these perspectives of people saying, ‘We don’t want you moving to this neighborhood because it’s dangerous,’ and in spite of those, they continue on and they move to this neighborhood — it seems very important,” Miller said.
Still, the show does remain a family drama at heart — one that transcends race in favor of the commonality of the American dream.
“It really remains a necessary story about people’s right to be, people’s right to exist, to be treated equally and have access just like the people around them do,” Morohunfola said. And, he said, on a smaller scale, “Who doesn’t have a family with some drama in it? We can all always learn from how people deal with their conflicts and their conflicting dreams.
“It proves to be a great play, no matter how you slice it and for any time.”
▪ “Fahrenheit 451,” Saturday through April 2 at the White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City. The theatrical adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel follows a fireman whose job is to burn books, until he eventually re-examines the world he lives in. See TheJKC.org or call 913-327-8054.
▪ “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” Tuesday through April 2 at the Music Hall. The touring Broadway musical follows the rise of singer/songwriter Carole King to become one of the most successful solo acts in music history. See TheaterLeague.com or call 816-421-7500. (Read more about the musical in Sunday’s Star.)