By Brian Robin
A Directing Labor of Love
Hanging above Khanisha Foster’s fireplace is a picture of Lorraine Hansberry dancing with James Baldwin, two titans of mid-20th century American literature captured for eternity in a moment of casual charm. It’s a rare moment where two of the most serious thought leaders of their era—or any era, for that matter—let their guard and hair down.
While that photo reminds Foster of one of her literary heroes enjoying a moment of lightness, her script of Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun is serious. It’s replete with color-coordinated punctuation and notes that serve as a roadmap for Foster to direct Hansberry’s masterpiece in the style the classic warrants.
This approach is what brought Foster back to SCR for what she calls “heaven”—directing A Raisin in the Sun during SCR’s 60th season. The first play in SCR’s American Icon series, which honors those “who contributed something of power or impact to our country,” as SCR Artistic Director David Ivers described it.
When discussing her potentially directing the play, Foster felt compelled to demonstrate to Ivers that, to her, Hansberry was more than just an American Icon and A Raisin in the Sun was more than a directorial project. When Foster showed Ivers her script, where her self-described “obsession about punctuation” was staring at him in living color and discussed what the late playwright—who died of cancer in January 1965 at 34—meant to her, he understood that to Foster, this was almost a religious calling.
“She matters to me. This play matters to me,” Foster said. “I grabbed the script and opened it up because I wanted to convince David I’m not saying I love the rhythm and writing of the play just to impress him. I showed him my script, where I’ve got all the punctuation color-coordinated. That’s something I learned at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. At Steppenwolf, it came out of using punctuation to visualize the text. It’s a great visual way to begin and remind us along the way where she peaks, drops and steadies her rhythm.
“I showed him that and I think we both felt quite giddy.”
It’s not her first production written by iconic Black writer. Foster won a BroadwayWorld regional directing award for helming Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye at Virginia Stage. She showed more versatility, earning Outstanding Direction and Best Production awards from Stage Scene LA for her work on the musical A New Brain by William Finn and James Lapine for the Celebration Theatre with the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
But A Raisin in the Sun speaks to Foster on so many levels. First, Foster is a Chicago native who is so wedded to her hometown Chicago Bears that Set Designer Josafath Reynoso joked that Foster won’t let him put any yellow or green colors in the Younger’s house, lest that remind her of the Bears’ hated rivals—the Green Bay Packers.
“There’s a lot of Chicago energy in this show,” she said. “My grandparents grew up in the neighborhood Lorraine talks about. My dad, in the same area. A lot of this set reflects that, the pastels you see. My grandmother had these pastels in her house. A lot of people assume Raisin should have this dreary set—sepia. I don’t do sepia. My experience growing up in a Black family in Chicago was in places that featured lot of color radiating out and making the most of spaces. We did a lot of that with the set.”
Foster’s family background also influenced how she wanted to cast the play. Her mother’s family invented bubble wrap and brought the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain to the Midwest; her father was a Black Panther who spent a year of his life on the run from the FBI and accidentally robbed a bank. As she said on her website, “The most dramatic moments you can find on TV are just a Tuesday in my house.”
“I had these two parents who spoke to the world in different ways, so I move in the sense of great curiosity,” she said. “I’m interested in what makes the person across from me different. What is it they have that nobody else has? When I cast shows, because I was raised by two unique people, I’m looking for something I’ve never seen before. Something unique. I like to bring an ensemble of these special people together. Chicago is town of ensembles. We want to see these wildly unique people tell a story together and be a family.”
Foster found that with the three female actors at the heart of this production—Tiffany Yvonne Cox (Ruth Younger), Ashembaga (Ashe) Jaafaru (Beneatha Younger) and Veralyn Jones (Lena Younger/Mama)—they embody the brilliance of Hansberry’s work by portraying three Black women at different stages of their lives in a beautifully organic manner.
“The scenes where they sit together and talk about what they want in three different views, we wanted women who are totally alive, where you can see who they are and how different they are and how connected they are all at the same time,” she said.
All this seamlessly fits Foster’s and Ivers’ vision that A Raisin in the Sun’s enduring legacy makes it one of those rare timeless plays that carries the same messages in 2023 that it did 64 years ago—on its 1959 Broadway debut. And those messages will endure when this play is produced 64 years from now—in 2087.
“The biggest thing we’re trying to do here is welcome Lorraine with open arms. She is an artist who I love deeply, an artist I did my thesis on in grad school,” Foster said. “I’m trying to make a space where we’re bringing her full self to the table. What we’re trying to do is honor what she wrote.
“When I was an undergrad, in my text analysis class, the professor said ‘Raisin is the perfect play. Raisin is the perfect play.’ Over and over. First and foremost, we’re trying to honor her work and get what she was saying right. … We’re not in any way trying to modernize the play. We feel the play is innately modern in the story. All we have to do is honor that.”