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The Conversation: KU theater professor on what ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ can still teach us

Nicole Hodges Persley, assistant professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Kansas, is directing “A Raisin in the Sun,” which opens Feb. 27 at the Crafton-Preyer Theatre at KU.
Nicole Hodges Persley, assistant professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Kansas, is directing “A Raisin in the Sun,” which opens Feb. 27 at the Crafton-Preyer Theatre at KU. The Kansas City Star

Nicole Hodges Persley of Kansas City is assistant professor of theater at the University of Kansas. Persley was born and raised in Detroit and Dearborn, Mich. She attended University of California-Los Angeles and earned a doctorate in American studies and ethnicity at University of Southern California. Persley is directing “A Raisin in the Sun” in the Crafton-Pryor theater at KU from Feb. 27 to March 8, KUTheatre.com. This conversation took place at Thou Mayest coffeeshop in the Crossroads Arts District.

When did you get interested in theater?

I was fortunate to go to performing arts elementary schools in Detroit at the height of the post-Civil Rights Act movement where activists decided they were going to go into public schools and teach kids about art.

How is “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry, which debuted on Broadway in 1959, still relevant today?

Hansberry was amazingly prescient as an artist and an activist. She used the play as a way to articulate her views and offer audiences new ways of thinking through really complex ideas about feminism, segregation and black nationalism.

The play asks us to look at those issues in terms of the complexity of human relationships and how we can love one another and have a lot of shared views, but there are places where we diverge where we can learn from one another. It is not required for us to all be alike.

Hansberry shows that through one family that is connected by so much love yet also has so many fractures within it. The fractures are cultural, political, social and gender-based. It’s like music — she put these notes in there and asks us to listen deeply. I love, love that about the play.

Do you think it speaks to the issues raised by Ferguson?

I’m hopeful that it does without me putting any heavy hands on those points.

The beauty of this play is that there is stuff in there that any family can relate to, even without some of the other layers that are in there. Anyone can relate to not agreeing with your sister or not sharing your parents’ views or mourning a father who has recently passed.

Hansberry uses comedy to help the family get through some of the tough moments where family members are not able to connect.

Theatre Lawrence (TheatreLawrence.com) is putting on “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris, which is a response to “Raisin” and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, simultaneously with our production. I’m really excited about that, because at first I considered putting on “Clybourne Park,” but I realized my students didn’t know “Raisin,” and you have to really know “Raisin” to understand “Clybourne.”

What do you hope theater-goers will take away from the two plays, if they see them in tandem?

That every American family deserves to be in a space where they can thrive and prosper and contribute to humanity without having to endure the pain of poverty. We need to work through the problem of poverty together as citizens. It is our problem as a society, not one group’s problem.

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to choedel@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @CindyHoedel, and on Facebook.

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