Lorraine Hansberry was a talented playwright who died of cancer when she was only 34 years old.
The young scribe gained fame early in life for searing, award-winning works such as "A Raisin in the Sun," along with her own more intimate journals reflecting a keen eye for taking in societies cultural details. She also was famous for being young, gifted, black and a woman, but her words seemed to transcend race and gender, and it's that theme that director Mark Kirk is pursuing in his latest production.
"To Be Young, Gifted and Black" by Robert Nemiroff, opens tonight in the Darby Hope Theatre on the Baker University campus.
"It's a chance to see the work of a brilliant young woman whose creativity and talent were cut short too soon," Kirk says.
Kirk, a professor in the theater department, directs several shows a year, and he's trying something new with this one he's staging it as a reader's theater production with only a week's rehearsal time.
"It's reader's theater with a little extra," he says with a laugh.
The selection of "Gifted" centered on several issues. Kirk wanted a show that did not call for a lot of technical emphasis. And he wanted a show that could be performed in a quick turnaround so that talented performers on campus who could not make room in their schedules for a full six weeks of rehearsal could have an opportunity to be in a production.
"The idea is to get in and out real fast, and it's neat because we have a lot of new talent appearing in it; people that have not had a chance to appear before," Kirk says.
Primarily, he selected the play to showcase the words of a great playwright who just happened to also be a minority.
"There are no stars or leads in this one. It's just a chance to showcase great material," he says.
The play is an adaptation of Hansberry's works, including "A Raisin in the Sun." It features characters from that play and others. But along with that, it also makes Hansberry a character by adding in excerpts from journals and letters that she wrote. People who also knew Hansberry personally make their appearance as characters.
Hansberry's husband, Robert Nemiroff, created the play adaptation.
"So much theater is written with white male roles in mind. We were searching for literature that represented women and minority issues," Kirk says.
The play is sponsored through a joint effort between the theater department and the International and Black Student Union.
Kirk feels that in Hansberry's work, readers find words that transcend race and gender, so he opted for the reader's theater format. But then he took it a step further. He has all the actors playing Hansberry, voicing her words at different times throughout the show.
"This is her story. You see the spirit of Lorraine Hansberry, and it is a spirit that transcends gender and race," Kirk says. "Her character is not an issue of culture, so we have black and white and male and female all playing Hansberry."
The cast includes Jai Baldeo, Candace Bell, Laura Booth, Chineda Grant, Cordell Horn, Josh Kenning, Morgan Ouimette, Justin Seely, Mia Wright and Jessica Yammo.
Hansberry extensively wrote about all her life experiences, and the adaptation features her recollections of her grandparents who were born into slavery. Also included are her experiences growing up in a Chicago ghetto, her first visit to the South and the race riots she saw there.
Kirk thinks that her indomitable belief in man's ability to overcome bias will eventually win out, even as the United States continues to struggle with minority oppression and racism.
"In her epilogue she questions herself as to whether her thoughts will prevail, and that people will think as she does," Kirk says. "And I think eventually she will win out."