Lorraine Hansberry was a trailblazer who battled valiantly for gender and racial equality. Her landmark work A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway, and at age 29 she was the youngest American playwright and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.
Hansberry was born into a progressive family who fueled her natural inclination to fight for racial and gender equality. First and foremost, she was an artist who believed her role in this world was to facilitate positive change, especially when it meant shaking up the status quo. Propelled by a healthy sense of self, she lived her tragically short life to its fullest.
It’s sad, then, that To Be Young, Gifted and Black, a biographical memory piece adapted by her former husband, Robert Nemiroff, from her plays, letters and essays, is so disjointed.
There are some lovely moments (ironically, mostly when scenes are recreated from Raisin) but the nonlinear structure and abrupt shifts in content and character make it impossible to develop any dramatic momentum.
Furthermore, one really needs to be a Hansberry aficionado to fully grasp everything that’s being described. Snippets of her own memories collide randomly with excerpts of her writing without transition. Being introduced to so many characters without context is wearying, especially as the second act grinds to the two-and-a-half hour mark.
Actors Co-op gives us a well-mounted production, as usual, but the decision to have three actors portray the playwright prohibits emotional investment in the character. Perhaps when the play was originally produced in 1969, the battle for racial equality and the still-fresh wounds caused by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the year before gave it more dramatic heft, but I was longing for more structure.
And the play doesn’t broach the subject of Hansberry’s sexuality, which I guess is not surprising since it was compiled by her ex-husband (an interesting relationship in itself). But I would certainly be intrigued to see a revised production with a more linear composition and a more complete portrait of the author.
The ensemble cast is fine, although Montelle Harvey tends to shrillness in his emphatic scenes. Of the women playing Hansberry, I thought Kimi Walker was the most effective.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., with additional Saturday matinees on February 16 and March 16 at 2:30 p.m., and closes on March 17. Reservations can be made online or by calling (323) 462-8460, extension 300.