A Raisin in the Sun

Catherine A Collins, a professional actress from Lenexa (left), playing as Lena Younger, Diadra Smith, a Senior Theatre and Psychology major from Manhattan (middle) playing Ruth Younger, and Ashley Kennedy, a Senior Theatre Major from Lawrence (right) playing Beneathea Younger in production of A Raisin in the Sun rehearsal on Wednesday night.

Nicole Hodges Persley, director of “A Raisin in the Sun,” could never have predicted the relevance her play would have today. A play that focuses on the lives of an African-American family would have been important at any time, but recent events seem to have perfectly aligned with the set up for the premiere of her show.

“I picked this play a year ago, so we couldn’t have predicted the ‘now’ and the tension that we’re experiencing,” Hodges Persley said. “We couldn’t have predicted Ferguson, we couldn’t have predicted any of these things — I just said, ‘This is the play I want to do.’ ”

The play centers on an African-American family, the Youngers, in the late 1950s. In a time when desegregation is just beginning, the family members struggle with making a better life and achieving the American dream while remaining true to themselves.

Zechariah Williams, a junior from Overland Park, plays the role of Walter Younger, the father of the family. Despite the fact that he plays a character 15 years older than he is, the character and the play both speak to his personal life.

“To me personally, the play is important on two different levels,” Williams said. “On an artistic level, as far as African-American literature goes, there’s not a lot of characters like the characters in this play. On a social level, it means a lot to me because I’m a young black man. It speaks to me as a young black man who comes from a low-income family and goes to college and does all these things to live that American dream.”

Although the play focuses on an African-American family, the ideas and themes presented apply to everyone, regardless of race, Hodges Persley said.

“It’s not just African-American students who need to know about this play; it’s every student in this department that needs to know because it’s American history,” she said. “It’s not African-American history — that’s its specific endeavor — but this is American history.”

Despite recent events, Hodges Persley said it is also important to view the themes of the play through the era it was written in.

“It’s tough not to impose the lens that we have about social relations now onto that piece because what we live now is a result of what other people suffered and fought for,” Hodges-Persley said. “The freedom that we have now to think about race in a different way was paid at a price, and that price was people making tremendous sacrifices as artists to tell a particular type of story even though it was challenging.”

However, she cautioned against simply viewing the play as a “racial play,” saying there are other important issues at hand.

“People always want to frame [“Raisin”] as a racial play, but what play isn’t a racial play as long as there’s human beings in it?” she said.

She mentioned nationalism, feminism and racial relations as issues that impact every decision made by the characters in the play. As an actor, Williams said these issues helped him to relate to his character.

“We still fight the same battles today,” Williams said. “We’re still fighting racial battles; women are still fighting for equal rights. People are still trying to fight for the American Dream. These are themes that are still relevant to today’s generation. Everyone has these dreams and aspirations that they want to be able to reach.”

For Williams, the education and social commentary the play provides are important, but the characters are the strongest part of the play.

“The whole play really comes together at the end,” Williams said. “It has a beautiful ending and people who stay for that, they’re really going to root for the characters. This is a play where you really root for this family; you want this family to succeed.”

“A Raisin in the Sun” runs the next two weekends in the Crafton-Preyer Theatre. Performances on Feb. 27-28 and Mar. 6-7 will start at 7:30 p.m. Sunday performances on March 1 and March 8 will be held at 2:30 p.m. Tickets for students are $10 in advance, $15 at the door and can be purchased online at kutheatre.com and at the ticket office in Murphy Hall.

 — Edited by Callie Byrnes

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