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.