“ It was the first play I’d read that didn’t portray African Americans as down and out. It was about hope and dreams. ” greg Williams Jr., portrays Walter Younger in New Venture Theatre’s A Raisin in the Sun
Camaraderie has a way of evoking inspiration.
Or is it the coffee? Maybe that’s it, because this idea arose when Greg Williams Jr. and Keith Dixon met for coffee.
Oh, they meet for coffee quite often, but this time the discussion took a turn for the stage. This wasn’t unusual, since both are directors.
Williams is founder of and artistic director for New Venture Theatre. Dixon is Baton Rouge Little Theater’s artistic director.
Both often direct the productions at their respective companies, but a turn in the conversation had them longing for a different point of view.
They missed the stage. Many directors were once actors.
Williams and Dixon had once been there. As they drank more coffee, they realized they wanted to go back.
“I told Keith that we were doing this production of A Raisin in the Sun,” Williams said.
The production is the first in New Venture’s 2013 season and will open Thursday, Feb. 21, in the Magnolia Performing Arts Pavilion at Baton Rouge Community College
“Keith became excited about it, because he was in the play in college,” Williams said. “So, we both decided that we’d audition for it — we would go through the very same thing we ask actors to do.”
That’s when the daily texts began, encouraging each other to prepare.
Williams, meanwhile, removed himself for the audition panel and asked Stephanie Chavis to direct the play.
“I told her that she would be responsible for introducing this play to a new generation,” he said.
“And that’s a big responsibility,” she said.
Chavis is a 2006 graduate of the LSU Department of Theatre. She’s always been familiar with Lorraine Hansberry’s play, but now it’s taken on a different light.
She’s seeing exactly what this story is about, what it means even in modern times.
“It’s a story of hope and dreams,” she said. “It’s not about giving up.”
A Raisin in the Sun debuted on March 11, 1959, in Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre. It was a landmark production as the first play written by an African-American woman to be featured on Broadway.
Hansberry chose the title from Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” also known as “A Dream Deferred.”
The story takes place in the 1950s. Its setting is the Washington Park Subdivision of the Woodlawn neighborhood in Chicago’s south side.
Walter and Ruth Younger and their son Travis, along with Walter’s mother, Lena, and sister, Beneatha, live in a dilapidated, two-bedroom apartment. Lena is waiting for an insurance check for $10,000, with which she plans to invest in a house.
Walter, however, has his sights set on co-ownership of a liquor store, but his mother refuses to give him the money because of her religious convictions.
Lena eventually puts a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood, then gives in to Walter. He wants to be wealthy, and the liquor store seems to be a prime opportunity to make money.
Walter sends the money to his prospective business partner, who promptly absconds with it. Walter’s dream is dashed, but Lena still has the house, and a neighborhood representative, Karl Lindner, offers to buy them out.
In other words, Lindner doesn’t want a black family living there, and Walter is ready to accept the offer as a solution to the family’s financial woes. But Lena objects, saying while money is something they try to work for, they should never take it as “a person’s way of telling them they weren’t fit to walk the same earth as them.”
Meanwhile, Beneatha meets Nigerian medical student Joseph Asagai who teaches her about her African heritage and eventually asks her to marry him and move to Nigeria.
So now questions remain. Will Walter accept Lindner’s buy out? Will Beneatha go to Nigeria?
The answers can be found in New Venture’s three performances of this play.
As for Williams, he learned the answers to these questions one day while riding the bus home from Tara High School. His English teacher, Jennifer Masterson, knew he wanted to be an actor and gave him copies of August Wilson’s plays to read.
She also gave him a copy of A Raisin in the Sun, which Williams couldn’t put down.
“It was the first play I’d read that didn’t portray African Americans as down and out,” he said. “It was about hope and dreams.”
Most of all, it was about the American dream.
“It was funny and uplifting, and I could see myself playing Walter on stage,” Williams said.
Now he’ll have his chance. Williams went through the audition process. He was treated no differently than the other actors up for the part, and competition was stiff.
“I really worked hard for it,” he said.
And Dixon won the role he played in college, Karl Lindner.
“Yeah.” Williams said, laughing.
“He plays the racist white neighbor, and we have so much fun teasing him at every rehearsal. It’s been a lot of fun for both Keith and me. We love being on stage again.”
And Chavis is having fun directing them.
Think about it. Two directors who are now actors being directed by an actor-turned-director. Well, that’s not really fair to say. Chavis directed a piece while a theater student at LSU.
“This will be my first time directing since college,” she said. “I took a hiatus from the stage and auditioned for television, movies and commercials. I returned to the stage last year.”
And one of the plays in which she appeared was New Venture’s November production of the comedy Talbot Beacon’s Latest Greatest Stage Play.
“I discovered New Venture last summer,” Chavis said. “I’d heard about it, but it wasn’t until a friend gave me tickets to The Color Purple for my birthday that I actually attended one of their shows. And I fell in love with it. I knew I had to be a part of it.”
Now she’s introducing A Raisin in the Sun, as Williams said, to a new generation. True, the play is set in the 1950s, but its themes are timeless.
“It’s as prevalent today as it was then,” Williams said. “Even more so. It’s about dreams and hope. And I don’t see Walter as the villain in this story. I see him as someone wanting the same things for himself and his family as other people have. He wants to achieve the American dream.”
And as Williams thinks of achievement, he can now chalk up one of his own. Dixon can, too.
Both dared to return to the stage and made it.