Tristan Cunningham (right) and Britney Frasier rehearse Lorraine Hansberry Theater’s “Home.”
The story you typically hear about Lorraine Hansberry Theatre is that it’s struggling, with greatly reduced programming. Samm-Art Williams’ “Home,” which opened this weekend, is the only full production of a play the company is mounting by itself this year. “Every 28 Hours,” from this fall, was a co-production with many other theaters, and winter’s “Soulful Christmas,” an annual tradition, is a gospel concert.
Over the past decade, the company weathered a series of setbacks that would bring any theater to the brink of death. In 2008, it lost its space. It found another, but then its two founders, Stanley E. Williams and Quentin Easter, died within months of each other. When Steven Anthony Jones took over as artistic director in 2010, he inherited significant debt and realized the theater couldn’t afford that second space. “I learned a very hard lesson, and that is that you’ve got to feed that dog when he wants to be fed,” he says over the phone. “The rent is due every month whether you’re producing or not.”
But to assess the 36-year-old company today just by looking at its main-stage season neglects all its less-flashy accomplishments behind the scenes.
Above: The two late founders, Quentin Easter and Stanley Wil liams, at the old Lorraine Hansberry Theater on Sutter Street, 2007. Left: Artistic Director Steven Anthony Jones.
Jones has been gradually stabilizing and rebuilding the company. It might not be returning to a full, five-show season any time soon, but “we’re out of debt,” he says. After years of nomadism, he’s found office space and a consistent venue in the African American Art and Culture Complex, which he can share with other companies, without shouldering a lease on his own. He’s recruited a board of directors that’s capable of fundraising and that’s governed by “a more traditional structure,” he says. This year, he’s produced 10 staged readings as part of the company’s Bringing the Art to the Audience series — so many that he keeps music stands (which hold scripts for readings) in his truck at all times. For 2017-18, he has a plan to hold steady, with three more full productions and a robust staged reading series, while hoping to grow his staff. He has two staffers who each “wear 15 hats, and the hats they don’t wear, I wear.”
For the present, “Home,” which Aldo Billingslea directs, testifies to the enduring importance of ethnic-specific theater. Williams’ mythic, poetic play about South Carolina orphan Cephus Miles (Myers Clark) was a hit on Broadway and garnered a 1980 Tony nomination. “You would think that a play like this would just have a long life and a lot of theaters would do it,” Jones says. “It’s three actors. It’s very simple.” He remembers that its Broadway set consisted of only four or five black crates. But “it’s like it fell off the table. It disappeared.”
Today, it’s no longer acceptable for a major mainstream theater company to program a whole season of works without any plays by people of color. Still, Billingslea says, “if the job of the theater is to hold a mirror up to society, you need to make sure that you’re able to see all facets.” It’s not enough, he says, to allow “the minority view in one show of the season … where all of the minorities will fight for that one play.”
Jones calls ethnic- and identity-specific theater companies “the conscience of the American theater,” dating back to Douglas Turner Ward’s 1966 New York Times essay “American Theater: For Whites Only?” in which the playwright and all-around thespian called for a black-led theater. Before that, Jones says, theater “interpreted all of us” — blacks and other minorities — “in ways we weren’t really crazy about,” whether that meant stereotyping or complete omission.
“That struggle continues,” Jones says. “We tell our stories the best. The Lorraine Hansberry is going to be the place where some young black writer might have the best chance to get their work read and perhaps done. We are all part of the American theater, and we simply make the American theater richer, stronger, more honest, and that’s always going to be the case.”
Jones decided to produce “Home” in part because of its opportunities for black female actors. In the show, Tristan Cunningham and Britney Frasier play a variety of roles, from Sunday School teachers to drug dealers to little boys to the very land, the earth Cephus leaves behind when he travels to the big city. “The play calls for artistic gymnastics,” says Billingslea. “You don’t see opportunities like this onstage for black women very often,” says Jones.
“I’ve always felt to a certain extent that Lorraine Hansberry is watching me,” says Jones of the playwright best known for creating “A Raisin in the Sun.” “I am acutely aware that the name of this theater is ‘Lorraine Hansberry,’ and as a man, I’m in an oddly privileged position. Her brilliance went unfulfilled. She died so young. She was an incredible intellect, an incredible writer, an incredible theater artist. I wish she was here now, so she could help me understand this time we’re living in.”
Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak
Home: Written by Samm-Art Williams. Directed by Aldo Billingslea. Through June 4. $25-$35. African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., S.F. (415) 474-8800. www.lhtsf.org.
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