Fort Worth — Playwright and author Lorraine Hansberry was a life cut too short. Best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun, which was the first play by an African-American woman to be performed on Broadway, she died at the young age of 34 due to complications related to pancreatic cancer. In her short time on Earth, she would effect such change that the likes of Paul Robeson and James Forman would eulogize her funeral, with remarks shared by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Upon her death in 1965, ex-husband Robert Nemiroff became the executor of her literary estate, gathering up manuscripts, letters, journals and interviews to form the basis for the play To Be Young Gifted and Black, which would later be adapted into a book of the same title.
Upon reading the script, one may sense a very stop-and-go dramatic pace, with scenic vignettes framed by pointed monologues sourced from Hansberry’s autobiographical materials. Likewise, on paper, the play is seemingly without much form or narrative structure.
However, the great accomplishment of Jubilee Theatre’s production, with director D. Wambui Richardson at the helm, is their ability to bring nuance, character and flow to Hansberry’s words, in such a way that presents an interpreted narrative arc — one that is at once culturally reflective and socially relevant.
Perhaps it was the performance I saw at the top of this month, when Jasmine Shanise portrayed both Young and Mature Lorraine instead of the roles being split between two actresses. Whether that was a creative choice or a matter of circumstance, I have to believe that it worked to the troupe’s advantage. Shanise’s interpretation served as a solid through-line from start to finish, anchoring the vast circuitry of material to a very solid, humanistic core.
Despite its fragmentary nature, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black still manages to press upon the very real narrative of the black experience in America. Indeed, it is its structure that affords a more complex, nuanced look at the varied facets of African-American life in the 1950s and ’60s — the effects of slavery and Jim Crow, black nationalism, and the wide spectrum of economic achievement.
This view is augmented and given emotional heft by snippets of some of Hansberry’s more revered work and scenes from her past, portrayed by supporting players. There is a heavy pause in flow when the characters present the famed climactic scene from A Raisin in the Sun, as Christopher Piper lends an enflamed sense of passion in his readings of Walter Lee Younger. Ken’ja Brown is wonderfully austere in her varying motherly roles, and Rita Kotey’s vocals add a warmth and depth with punctuating iterations of Nina Simone’s song “To Be Young Gifted and Black,” which she wrote in memory of Hansberry, her friend.
Jennye James’ set design is both playful and moving, with scribblings of Hansberry’s words strewn across a modest Chicago cityscape. Her use of levels is engaging, supplemented by clever projections and sound design by Lindsay Silva and David Lanza, respectively.
It is a difficult feat to pull off, this work. Its pace can be easily subverted by rapidly changing scenes and shifting characters. However, the Jubilee cast strikes a surprising balance. In so doing, this all black cast truly gives meaning to Hansberry’s words delivered to winners of a writing competition in 1964: “Though it is a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic — to be young, gifted and black.”