We’re all going to go crazy, living this epidemic every minute, while the rest of the world goes on out there, all around us, as if nothing is happening, going on with their own lives and not knowing what it’s like, what we’re going through. We’re living through war, but where they’re living it’s peacetime, and we’re all in the same country. — Ned Weeks in Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart”
With plays that focus on recent history, it is natural to cast your mind back to that time period and any personal memories you have of that moment in time. One of the things a production of The Normal Heart does for audiences now is to combat a bit of revisionist history. It can be easy to forget how little was known about the disease and how slow the political and social structures of the country were to respond. Huge parts of the country were not initially affected by the crisis and felt it was something that happened to other people; the fact that those people were mostly gay men, Haitians and IV drug users only exacerbated the indifference.
I was a child when AIDS entered the public consciousness, living in Idaho—about the most remote you could be from the deaths in major cities. AIDS entered my personal consciousness in 1984, when I showed my parents the article on the first reported AIDS cases in Idaho, which I proposed to take to school for my current events assignment. My parents, who were liberal-minded for Idaho, suggested that it might not be appropriate for me to take to school because the teacher and some of my classmates would not want to talk about the people who were getting sick. I don’t recall any of my other current events articles, but my parents’ caution made the article lodge in my mind. Why would front-page news be something that you couldn’t talk about?
That same year hemophiliac teen Ryan White would make AIDS a source of concern for those in states like Idaho. The controversy surrounding whether he should be allowed to attend school with other children slipped into our playground consciousness. Because children are the natural distillers of their parents’ opinions and conversations at home, “faggot” and “gay” became the new insults. Children no longer talked about cooties; the shunned child on the playground had AIDS.
That mix of fear, indifference and hate has a way of becoming part of the cultural fabric. A few years later, when I was diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune disease, I hid it from my friends. I found that teachers and adults who knew me looked at me with this unnerving mix of fear and pity, and I did not want anyone to know. I started preparing myself to die before the age of 20. It turns out that my illness was quite treatable, but because the immune system was part of the diagnosis in a climate of little information about AIDS—paired with an atmosphere of judgment and fear—it had me contemplating my mortality at age 12.
I write this not to evoke pity for me, I am fine, but to try to remember and understand the world that changed with AIDS. With the benefit of hindsight, I ask myself: If I was that filled with fatalism as a young girl, what was it like to be a gay man who lost not just a few friends to a mysterious illnesses, but tens or hundreds?
My point in reflecting on AIDS and this moment of early understanding is similar to performing Kramer’s play at this moment. We are asked to look back and see what we did or failed to do. We are also asked to look at ourselves in the present moment and examine whether or not we are still failing.
Kramer’s language in both the play and the essays and articles he wrote throughout the early years of the AIDS epidemic are polemical. He is hard on the mostly straight and straight-laced people who ignored or feared the first deaths in New York and San Francisco. However, he is equally hard on the gay community, and ultimately, on himself. His language is that of a Biblical prophet crying out in the desert because someone had to raise an outcry.
I thought, what a perfect symbol; what a warm, comforting, middle-class, middle-American, traditional-family-values symbol to attach to this disease that’s killing homosexuals and IV drug users and Haitian immigrants, and maybe, just maybe, we could apply those traditional family values to my family. — Cleve Jones, Founder of The Names Project: AIDS Memorial Quilt, interviewed on “Frontline”
At the same time Kramer also presents us with a beautiful, tragic love story. He asks us to reach out sympathetically and identify with these men. Like Cleve Jones, a San Francisco gay activist and part of the group who created the AIDS Memorial Quilt, he asks us to make room in our family values to be more inclusive, more compassionate. Much like A Raisin in the Sun put us in the middle of the Younger family and asked us to make their troubles our own, we are asked to grieve with Ned, Emma and Ben for the loss of the Felix in their family. We are asked to redefine family.
When I see the play now, I wish the young me had brought the article to class, or stopped someone on the playground from using a slur. But I also have to ask myself: What have I done for my friends who managed to grow up in Idaho and come out of the closet? What am I doing to ensure that they are being treated as my healthy equals, as Ned Weeks asks his brother to do in the play? What about those who are HIV positive or will be HIV positive, those who can’t afford the cost of medicine, those who live in countries without access to the medicines that are not a cure but a way of slowing the virus down. A friend wrote me a note when much of The Normal Heart cast and crew participated in the AIDS Run & Walk Chicago and thanked me fore walking. I wrote back that you don’t get to work on Larry Kramer’s play and not do something. In truth, it doesn’t seem like enough.
At TimeLine, we regularly ask these questions of ourselves: “What is the relevance of this play at this time? What is the power of art to promote social change?” Larry Kramer asks us not just to be moved by the sight of these men in love and their tragedy, but also to get up off our asses and do something. I have some catching up to do. We hope audiences will be inspired to do something, too.
Join The Normal Heart. Help us make this amazingly moving production even stronger for those who will come to see it! It’s a project unique to our production, built on your participation.
We would like anyone who comes to see TimeLine’s production to bring a photo of a friend, family or loved one who lost their life to HIV/AIDS or the effects of the virus.
Read on for more and how to get involved …
One of the many reasons I started working with TimeLine is because the visual aspects of the show are very important to our work. We often push ourselves to produce work that even amazes us as a company—we end up asking, “How did we do that?”
You could see this from the very first show ever produced in our Wellington Avenue space, Gaslight, on to Copenhagen, and Blood and Gifts. And I think that The Normal Heart is no exception.
The back wall of The Normal Heart stage, which is only 17 feet from the downstage edge of the stage, is a wall of books—40 feet wide and nearly 20 feet tall. At first this wall was to represent playwright Larry Kramer’s bookcase in his New York City apartment on Washington Square, full of life and clutter, much like the bookcases in my own studio.
But The Normal Heart bookcase has come to represent so much more. It is the clutter of New York City in the early 1980s. It is people’s lives—book by book, and as collections.
Placed in front of the bookcase, there are slick, clean-lined doors that sometimes allow you to see people ghosting behind them. These doors often block the bookshelves throughout the play, but they can never cover up the chaos of the city and the destruction behind it. It took Mayor Koch nearly 3 years to ever deal with this outbreak that killed so many in the gay community, and now every community all over the world.
What happens to one’s book collection and personal effects when you die? What artifacts do people leave behind? What things have people collected of their loved ones? Today, in this world, there are photos of, and pieces of art created by, the (mostly) men who died in the early- to mid-1980s.
The TimeLine Company, director Nick Bowling, and I would be honored if you would join us in creating a wall of memories—making this amazingly moving production even stronger for those who will come to see it.
We would like anyone who comes to see TimeLine’s production to bring a photo of a friend, family or loved one who lost their life to HIV/AIDS or the effects of the virus. Together, let’s make this powerful back wall of the theater a living memorial until the day we close.
You would honor us by letting our cast, crew and audiences celebrate the life of this person, these people. Please bring the photos with you when you attend the show and hand them to the house manager. I will personally come to the theater every three days or as needed to put up these photos or small remembrances. I will take great pride and care with them.
NOTE: Please keep in mind that we are not able to guarantee return of your items after the show closes.
I hope you will join us and Larry and the more than 30 million people worldwide who have lost their lives to this tragic epidemic. I thank you so very much.
In 2010 TimeLine’s literary manager, Ben Thiem, encouraged me and my fellow Company Members to read Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Embarrassingly, initially I made the mistake of assuming that it was a dated play. And then I read it, for the first time.
Like my colleagues, I was completely knocked out, and not just by its political vibrancy and call to action. Larry Kramer crafted one of the great historical dramas of the 20th Century, brimming with heart, courage and humor, and aimed a piercing lens at an era that too many mistakenly think of today as dated. It not only retains its potency since its premiere in 1985, but it’s evolved with age into a searing reminder of how history takes shape before our eyes due to the actions—or inactions—of people like you and me.
TimeLine’s mission is not just about looking backward into history. It’s ultimately about how we look forward.
The Normal Heart takes us back to a time when a fast-spreading plague had no name. It was first referred to as a “rare cancer found in homosexuals,” then “gay-related immunodeficiency syndrome” (GRID). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named it “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome” (AIDS) in 1982—a full five years before President Ronald Reagan would ever utter the name in a speech.
During that time scores of deaths were attributed to the disease and fear-inducing rumors spread rampantly about how people could acquire it —from drinking fountains, toilet seats, or, in the case of hemophiliac AIDS patient Ryan White, from just sitting beside him in class. That particular myth initially barred White’s entry to his school in Kokomo, Ind., and elicited a bullet shot into his family’s home.
What Kramer’s play reminds us in 2013 is that while the play’s setting during the 1980s era of misinformation may feel distant in some respects, we mustn’t forget the genesis of the AIDS epidemic and what exacerbated its escalation. In a 2006 interview the playwright said: “A very strange thing has happened in the post-AIDS generation. I don’t know what to call them; it’s not really post-AIDS, but let’s call them healthier, younger ones … They don’t want to know the history; they don’t want to acknowledge that the people who died were even part of their history … These people died so that you could live.”
TimeLine’s mission is not just about looking backward into history. It’s ultimately about how we look forward. It’s about igniting dialogue about how the past informs the present. During our Company’s 2010 discussion about The Normal Heart, it was immediately clear that this was a TimeLine story, urgent to tell even in the midst of an encouraging new era of civil rights advances.
But our ability to do The Normal Heart right away was put on hold by the emergence of a star-studded reading of the play in New York, followed by a highly acclaimed Broadway production—which received the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play—and rumors of a national tour that ultimately never materialized in Chicago. So here we are, after patiently waiting, bringing you a Chicago revival of Kramer’s play.
Since TimeLine first became interested in producing this play in 2010, there has been much progress for LGBT rights in the United States. But there are still a disturbing number of stories of intolerance, discrimination, fear, shame and death—both in our country and beyond.
And despite medical advances, we are far from being a post-AIDS generation. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of October 13 there are approximately 1.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States, and almost one-fifth them are unaware that they have it. Since the start of the epidemic, 1.7 million Americans have been infected with HIV and more than 650,000 have died of AIDS.
That’s just our country.
Worldwide, there were about 2.5 million new cases of HIV in 2011, and about 34.2 million people are living with HIV around the world. In 2010, there were about 1.8 million AIDS deaths. Nearly 30 million people with AIDS have died since the epidemic began.
These are numbers you may have seen countless times, perhaps with numbing effect. Yet strings of facts and figures—breathtakingly large as they may be—often don’t pack the same punch as when the disease’s carnage is felt more personally through a human face. And that is what Larry Kramer boldly and unapologetically did in 1985 with The Normal Heart. He put a face on not just the devastation, but also on the fight. And the face he put on it was his own, embodied in the play’s chief antagonist Ned Weeks.
We mustn’t forget the genesis of the AIDS epidemic and what exacerbated its escalation.
Kramer has never shied from a fight or debate, nor sugar-coated any blistering criticism—whether it was about others in the gay community or those outside it. He calls it like he sees it, and for decades his crusade has been a relentless indictment of silence, inaction and being closeted. Even during the heralded Broadway run of the play in 2011—26 years after his play’s argument began—Kramer was often a fixture on the sidewalk outside the theatre, handing out flyers as the audience came out, passionately urging them to learn more and do more.
We don’t have the benefit of his presence on the Belmont Avenue sidewalk outside Stage 773 each night, but we hope you’ll still experience his urging through this play.
I am incredibly proud to welcome an astonishing team of artists to this production, led on stage by one of Chicago’s finest provocateurs, David Cromer, embodying Kramer’s impassioned agitator, Ned Weeks. And at the helm, we have another of our city’s finest provocateurs, TimeLine’s Associate Artistic Director Nick Bowling, once again infusing new electricity into a play from the past that is about how we get to tomorrow.
During rehearsals, Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) talked with director Nick Bowling (NB) and actor David Cromer (DC) about The Normal Heart. An edited version of their conversation appears in The Normal Heart Backstory.
PJ Powers (PJP): Here I am sitting with Nick Bowling, TimeLine’s Associate Artistic Director and the director of our production of The Normal Heart, as well as actor David Cromer, who is playing Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart. Thanks guys for joining me. I know you have to dash off to rehearsal soon, so let’s just jump in. Do you remember how you first met?
David Cromer (DC): No.
Nick Bowling (NB): I do. We first met on And Neither Have I Wings to Fly.
DC: Yes, yes.
NB: I worked as your casting director on that.
PJP: And when was that?
NB: Right, 2000. And we had a great time in that audition room.
DC: It was a great cast.
NB: It was a great cast, and then it was a really lovely production that you directed.
PJP: So you worked with him as casting director. Wow, and now 13 years later here we are. So David do you remember what your first experience with The Normal Heart was?
DC: I saw the Next Theatre production when it had moved from the theatre in Evanston to the Ivanhoe.
PJP: Now the Binny’s wine superstore just down the block from TimeLine.
DC: It was relatively soon after the New York production, and it’s one of the few occasions I legitimately without any doubt leaped to my feet at the end of it. Just the raw power of it was really shattering. And so, that was my first time.
PJP: Nick, was your first experience when we read it as a company about three years ago?
NB: Yes, and then first time seeing it was this Broadway revival that happened two years ago. I definitely knew of the play but I don’t think I’d ever read it before and I was taken by that production in New York. I was mostly taken by the contextualization of the play from today’s perspective, and in particular the idea of looking back at AIDS from the perspective that we have today. That AIDS had such an impact on the gay community, in of course terrible awful ways, but also the positive impact it had on bringing a community together and giving a community a point. And also realizing how strong Larry Kramer was, what an important voice he was in helping us shape that focus toward advancement as a community.
PJP: For both of you in revisiting this play, seeing it in New York and re-reading it and so on, did you go into those experiences thinking “Oh, I wonder if this thing is dated?”
As To Master the Art begins its new life, courtesy of the Chicago Commercial Collective and Broadway In Chicago, I thought it worth noting just how we got to this point in a process that began an astonishing seven years ago. Ironically, the process has played out—just as much of the play itself does—around a table.
Laughing, loving, debating, discussing, deal-making, sharing, creating and planning—these happen throughout our lives around a table. And quite often there is food that brings us together.
Looking back at the seven-year evolution of To Master the Art, perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me how much of this play has come to life in a similar fashion—gathering around a table over a meal, hatching big plans that eventually led to incredible destinations we couldn’t have initially imagined.
Here’s a look at some of the highlights around the table for To Master the Art:
Summer 2006 at the kitchen table in a cottage in St. Josephs, Michigan
During breakfast at the annual retreat of TimeLine Company Members, pitching ideas, my amazing colleague Juliet Hart broke out a copy of a new book, My Life In France, and passionately proclaimed, “We must create a play about Julia and Paul Child!” Immediately intrigued, we all started talking about next steps and getting our hands on more biographies to learn about this fascinating couple. I offered up one idea: “I think we have to talk to Bill Brown,” knowing that he was not only one of our favorite collaborators, but also the most Julia Child-crazed person I knew.
Winter 2007 at Bill Brown’s dining room table
After doing additional research and having some preliminary conversations with Bill over many months, it was time to make things more concrete. Over a delicious meal, he totally shot down the first idea—that he star in a one-person play, taking on both characters of Paul and Julia. Bill was not at all interested in that route. But he was definitely intrigued by creating a show about Paul and Julia, and we agreed to keep thinking and talking.
Summer 2008 at the table in Bill Brown’s backyard
Again over a delicious dinner, Bill—now joined by Doug Frew—shared a two-page proposal about the play that they wanted to write together. It was terrific, and soon thereafter, TimeLine Theatre officially commissioned them to write it.
2006 to 2011 over multiple breakfast meetings at Mitchell’s Diner
Brian Loevner and I met every few months over breakfast to talk shop. A recurring topic was our frustration that there were few (or no) options in Chicago for hit shows from Off-Loop not-for-profits to get extended life in a commercial transfer production. Little did I know that Brian would have bigger plans down the road, to be revealed at a later meal ….
Fall 2008 at a table at the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Bill and Doug spend days combing the archives of Julia Child, reading countless letters and documents.
Winter 2009 at Doug Frew’s home
With Julia’s French Onion soup simmering on a stove in the background, Bill and Doug gather at the table to start work on the script.
August 2009 at Le Bouchon restaurant
Bill, Doug and I have dinner after forcing ourselves to see the new film Julie and Julia, assessing whether or not we thought it would be the undoing of our own project, which was already very much in-process. After much discussion and tremendous food, we were poised to charge forward, believing that we were creating something unique and stage-worthy.
January 2010 around folding tables in TimeLine’s rehearsal room
A workshop of To Master the Art.
February 2010 on the set of TimeLine’s “Master Harold” … and the Boys
Using the table and kitchen from this Athol Fugard play as our stand-in, we present the first public reading of To Master the Art.
October 30, 2010
The table for To Master the Art officially comes to life on the Opening Night of its world premiere at TimeLine. The eight-week run sold out within days and we mounted a campaign for the play to have continued life somewhere.
February 2012 at Smoke Daddy’s restaurant
Once again dining with Brian Loevner over lunch, he tells me that he’s starting a new commercial producing initiative, focusing on remounting hit Chicago productions, and he wants a TimeLine production to be among the first projects. “What do you have?” he asks. By the following day he has the script of To Master the Art and 20 reviews of the production.
May 2012 over breakfast
Brian meets with Bill and Doug to discuss remounting their play.
January 2013 around the Broadway In Chicago conference table
Representatives from Broadway In Chicago, Chicago Commercial Collective and TimeLine hash out some details of a plan to mount To Master the Art at the Broadway Playhouse as part of the Fall subscription season of Broadway In Chicago.
April 2013 back around folding tables in the TimeLine rehearsal room
A new workshop with a revised script and some new cast members (and a deluxe cheese tray for inspiration, courtesy of Doug).
September 2013 at a table at the Mity Nice Grill next to the Broadway Playhouse
At dinner before the final dress rehearsal—fittingly, each eating French Onion soup—Bill, Doug and I toast a great tech process and the enthusiasm for that evening’s final run-through. It’s ready for a bigger audience.
It’s taken a long time to bring the show to this point, but to quote Paul from the final scene of the play, we’ve “enjoyed every damn minute of it,” working around a table with an ever-increasing team and finding communion there as collaborators and creators.
Whether it was discussing with the TimeLine Board, Company and staff the feasibility of mounting a production, watching an audition for an incredible actor who came in and seized a role, looking at research photos covering a table in a design meeting, gathering in a production meeting on stage late at night around the table to perfect the aroma of shallots sautéing in butter, or, most importantly, sharing it with an audience—each phase and each contributor has passionately and personally added to the feast of this new play.
In Bill and Doug’s proposal from 2008 they wrote, “Our reasons for wanting to write this play go beyond the fact that Julia Child taught us both how to cook—and by extension, how to live our lives more fully and graciously … It’s a story of discovery. Here was a woman who, at the age of 37, was still finding out who she was, where her true passions lay, and what she was going to do with them.”
That sense of discovery has been a part of every aspect of this play’s process, and led by Bill and Doug’s heart-on-their-sleeve affection, I have watched an astonishing team embody Julia’s spirit of exploration and fearlessness, relentlessly pursuing excellence with unabashed joy and a thankfulness for being at the table together.
To commission a new play involves risk, trust and patience—three things that Julia also embodied and taught us. Just as she was in uncharted territory trying to write her first cookbook, so too were we in this—TimeLine’s first production of a play we commissioned. And that risk and patience have been critical to this venture.
Industry-wide, a depressing number of new play commissions never make it to a full production. And an even more depressing number don’t get the benefit of a second production to continue to develop, refine and reach more people. We feel blessed to have seen both occur, thanks to the trust of countless supporters and adventurous audience members who wanted to go on this exploration with Julia, Paul, and TimeLine.
To Master the Art is a first for TimeLine in many respects. It’s not only our first fully produced commission, but also our first commercial remount, first production in a 550-seat theatre and first partnership with another producer. As Judith Jones says in Act Two of the play, “Well there you have it. We’re making this up.”
Each step along the way has taught us new things, pushed us further and caused us to “live life more fully and graciously.” Now we eagerly give the play back to Chicago audiences (albeit a larger one than in 2010 at TimeLine), and happily welcome more people to the table for the feast of To Master the Art.
During rehearsals for A Raisin in the Sun, TimeLine Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) talked with playwright Ron OJ Parson (ROJP) about his history with the play, his roots within Chicago theatre, and the lessons we can continue to take away from Lorraine Hansberry’s timeless work. An edited version of this interview is included in the A Raisin in the Sun Backstory. This is the full version. Read on:
(PJP) What was your first experience with A Raisin in the Sun?
(ROJP) This play has always been a part of my family, basically because of Sidney Poitier and the impact he had in our family. We were proud to see an African American man on stage and screen. People said my Mom looked a lot like Diana Sands, the original Beneatha. And I had to play Mr. Lindner in junior high because there weren’t many white kids at my school. I was lighter skinned than many of my classmates, thus I was Mr. Lindner. At first it was weird but then I did what I tell actors, “Embrace your roles.” Early stages of non-traditional casting!
(PJP) I’ve heard you say many times, “this play is special.” What do you mean by that?
(ROJP) Like many of the great classic plays by great playwrights—Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire—these plays revolutionized the theatre world. With A Raisin in the Sun, it meant even more to me and my family because it was a story that many of us could personally relate to. And of course it was a landmark, groundbreaking play on Broadway, the likes of which had never been seen before. So it had, and has, a special place in all our hearts, growing up and to this day.
(PJP) You were in the cast of the 25th Anniversary production that started at the Kennedy Center and toured the country. What was that experience like?
(ROJP) What a great experience for a young actor/director. I got to understudy Delroy Lindo, who wasn’t a household name at the time, and to play one of the Moving Men. What an honor to work with Esther Rolle from Good Times fame, and to meet Robert Nemeroff and Phillip Rose, two of the original producers, and hear stories of the early productions of the play. John Fiedler, the original Mr. Lindner, was our Mr. Lindner, and ended up helping me when I co-founded Onyx Theatre here in Chicago. And of course to work with a great director like Harold “Hal” Scott, whose directing style has influenced me to this day along with my friend and mentor Stephen McKinley Henderson. It was an experience I will always cherish as a highlight of my career.
(PJP) Why do you think this play continues to resonate with different generations?
Well, unfortunately many of the issues that exist in the play—the dreams, aspirations, hardships and housing issues of the 1950s—still exist today. But most of all it is Lorraine Hansberry’s strong, rich characters and the beautiful story she has told. Some plays will exist and resonate with generations to come, forever. Great theatre is great theatre.
(PJP) Most people who have experienced A Raisin in the Sun have seen it in larger spaces. What are you and your design team hoping to achieve in our intimate space?
(ROJP) Being in such an intimate space will bring the play so much closer than you normally see these characters. Our idea is to include the audience in the room, to feel the claustrophobia that the Younger family feels. To feel what living in this kind of close quarters can do to your psyche. I always approach work for the audience to feel the play, not just hear or see it.
(PJP) The center of this play is the role of Mama, and we have the great fortune to have the incredible Greta Oglesby in this role. Talk about your history with Greta and what continue to draw you to her work.
(ROJP) I have been working with Greta since her days here in Chicago. Some actors you really feel comfortable with—you can understand them and they understand you. My style is very organic, so having actors who can understand your style helps immensely. Greta has a strong resolve, and I love the depth she brings to a role.
(PJP) Earlier in your career you did much more acting, and while you still do some, you’ve become such an in-demand director all over the country that that has dominated your schedule. How has your acting experience informed your work as a director, and what has pushed you more into the director’s chair lately?
(ROJP) Honestly, I think any director who has been an actor understands actors better, and really feels what the actor is going through in rehearsal. I personally like to direct the way I like to be directed. I can understand when an actor is struggling and what he or she needs. Many times you are dealing with various levels of experience and you may have to deal with every actor in the production in a different way. Communication is key. So I believe that being an actor definitely helps in all areas of direction.
(PJP) You’re a busy man, with a lot of projects this season. What other shows do you have coming up this year?
(ROJP) Well, you know how this business is. It can be like a roller coaster. Up and down, fast and slow. We have some good years and some bad years. I am having a good year. Fortunately I have had support of the Joyce Foundation and Court Theatre to be able to have a home base, which always helps. This year I have A Raisin in the Sun here, The Mountaintop at Court, Detroit 67 at Northlight Theatre, Seven Guitars back at Court and Trouble In Mind up at Northwestern University. And maybe a couple of other projects in there somewhere. My ultimate dream is to start a new company within the next two years. But of course you know how difficult that is.
Having been a freelance actor/director for over 40 years, the good years are a blessing. But it is a constant hustle. It’s like the story from the Ron Howard movie Parenthood, where the grandmother talks about the roller coaster vs. the merry-go-round. Our lives as artists are like the roller coaster—it can be pretty rough, but oh, what fun. It goes up and down, fast and slow; it’s a lot of fun. Some people like the merry-go-round, but it just goes around. I love the roller coaster ride to this day.
We are thrilled to launch TimeLine’s 17th season next week with Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.
Since we announced this play I’ve been struck by the number of people who’ve responded with “Why that play again?” This hasn’t been a majority response, but I’ve heard it more than expected. Yet when asked, most people have trouble answering when they last saw it performed. (It’s been 13 years since a major Chicago revival by the Goodman Theatre and seven years since Court Theatre produced a musical adaptation.)
Perhaps “Why that again?” is asked of any American classic. We wonder what new could possibly be mined from The Glass Menagerie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Our Town, The Crucible, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, etc., until we see one of those plays with fresh eyes and are knocked out by its impact and stunned to hear things we’ve never heard in it before.
The label of “classic” is ascribed to these plays for a reason—each has a resonance that is timeless. And TimeLine puts A Raisin in the Sun on stage this fall not just because it is timeless but also because we believe it is incredibly timely.
Though written more than 50 years ago, A Raisin in the Sun—arguably the greatest play ever set in Chicago—has as much to say now as it did then. While Hansberry wrote during a time that feels distant (preceding the Civil Rights movement), Chicago was then and is now a tale of two cities, splintered into neighborhoods with stark contrasts.
The issues that impact us most are intrinsically tied to where we reside—to where our real estate is. Be it rampant violence, gang activity, drug trafficking, economic investment, park beautification or the battle over the quality and quantity of our schools, our deep connection (or relative indifference) to these headlines comes down to where we find ourselves in this great metropolis. When one of those stories is rooted in a part of town other than our own, is our investment and concern as great?
A Raisin in the Sun is a play full of hope, full of a yearning to fulfill dreams and seize opportunity. A grandmother strives to give her kids and grandson a better life than what she knew. A father instills in his son the belief that he can do anything he sets his mind to. And a daughter works to break barriers of gender, education and career achievement. But they all see their dreams as unnattainable if they remain where they currently dwell.
It’s a story about Chicago—then and now and hopefully not forever.
So, why this play again? A Raisin in the Sun is about our community and the ever-shifting but ever-existing neighborhood barriers that keep it a tale of two cities. It’s a story about Chicago—then and now and hopefully not forever.
I’m delighted to have director Ron OJ Parson at TimeLine for the first time. I’ve greatly admired his work for more than 15 years, and you can read in our Backstory program book (and coming soon on this blog) about his long and storied history with this play.
Whether it’s your first experience with A Raisin in the Sun or not, we think you’ll see it from a unique perspective at TimeLine—inside the Younger’s apartment in a way that perhaps you haven’t been invited before. Most are likely to have first seen this play in a large, proscenium theatre, or perhaps, on a screen. Those perspectives surely have impact, but they also have a built-in remove that isolates you from the characters. The production team has worked against that norm, drawing you literally inside the apartment building where the Younger family dwells. You’ll sit just a few feet from the couch where Travis sleeps and the kitchen table where major family decisions are debated.
We can’t wait to invite you through the front door!
A Raisin in the Sun is the first production in our powerhouse line-up this year. Our 2013-14 season also includes the The Normal Heart playing nearby at Stage 773, The How and the Why, the first-ever Chicago production of the musical Juno, and a new downtown commercial production of To Master the Art, which was originally commissioned and premiered at TimeLine in 2010.
It promises to be a year of great discussion and discovery, and I thank you for being a part of it.