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Although only two of her plays had been produced by her death at age 29, Lorraine Hansberry emerged as a leading voice in the struggle for Black equality in the 1960s. To Be Young, Gifted, and Black tells her story in the context of the growing Civil Rights movement. But to its credit, this play also explores Hansberry's life from feminist and artistic perspectives. Although director Katrina Merritt's staging is conventional, the intriguing script and powerful cast ensure that our interest in Hansberry and the works she created will linger after the lights have faded.
To Be Young, Gifted, and Black unfolds in a standard stream-of-consciousness manner, following Hansberry's life in rough chronological order. Autobiographical vignettes are interspersed with scenes from her two famous plays, A Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. The Playwright (Amanda Frye) narrates scenes as the ensemble enacts her memories. She moves around the perimeters of those scenes, smiling bemusedly and offering commentary taken from Hansberry's speeches and writings.
The action proceeds slowly, and the gaps between scenes allow audience members perhaps too much time to mull over what they have just seen. But Frye provides an admirable bridge between the play's various moments, her whimsical smile and wry analysis investing the scenes with a relevance that would be lacking if the play ran without a narrator. The Playwright resembles the Stage Manager from Thorton Wilder's Our Town, but Frye plays her role with an emotional immediacy that reminds the audience that Hansberry is constantly discussing events from her own life.
Three of the performers in To Be Young, Gifted, and Black appeared in the last Black C.A.S.T show, which shared Hansberry's theme of Blacks' divergent responses to a white power structure. The performers' previous exposure to the similar dramatic themes enhances their characterization here. Each actor plays a number of roles in this production, and Mychelle Shegog is particularly strong in all four of the roles she plays. The monologue in which one of Shegog's characters criticizes those whites who see Black women as strictly sexual creatures is sharp and powerful. "You could be Jesus in drag," she declares, "but if you're Black, they're sure you're selling."
Although Hansberry's status as a Black woman writer provides for various dramatic conflicts, the issue most frequently addressed is whether a Black should strive for incremental change without directly disrupting American power structures, or whether a Black should force change through confrontation.
This question troubles the imagined slaves Sarah (Shegog) and Hannibal (Geoffrey Fletcher) inspired by Hansberry's first visit to the South, as they try to decide whether Hannibal should run away from slavery. The central characters from A Raisin in the Sun wrestle with the same question when they debate if they should accept a white man's money in exchange for not moving into his neighborhood. The Playwright herself wonders whether she can best serve her the cause of civil rights by writing in New York or by journeying South with the Freedom Riders.
It is a tribute to this play's realism that the characters in these situations do not make consistent decisions; while Hannibal flees slavery, the Playwright's decision is to remain foremost a writer and not a marcher.
Another strong feature of To Be Young, Gifted, and Black is its refusal to view Hansberry's life entirely through the prism of race relations. As the script convincingly demonstrates, problems of sexuality and artistic integrity occupy the Playwright's work as frequently as racial issues. The tension between her role as Black spokesperson and her individual identity is exposed in one scene in which characters from Hansberry's past encircle her and silence her voice with their own shouts.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black is a powerful exposition of racial problems within American society. But this play is also the engaging story of one author's attempts to give voice to her own emotional concerns. And the success with which Frye and the rest of the cast reproduce Hansberry's life only makes the brevity of that life seem all the more tragic.
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