By Brian Robin
For This Dramaturg, It's Personal
Zharia O’Neal’s history with A Raisin in the Sun goes back to ninth grade. She’s reminded of that every time she looks on her endless bookshelf and sees the copy of Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece.
It’s the same copy that introduced her to Hansberry. It’s traveled with her as a companion, a reminder of “the first time I had seen Black folks represented on stage.”
“I remember eating the play up and at my age, not being able to fully understand the stakes and all the textures of it, because I was so young,” she said. “As I’ve grown and revisited it … the play kept coming back up. There was the movie with Sean Combs and Phylicia Rashad and every time I experienced it, I saw it in a new light.”
O’Neal is once again seeing it in a new light as the dramaturg for SCR’s production of A Raisin in the Sun, which runs Oct. 22-Nov. 12 on the Julianne Argyros Stage. It is another journey on what seemed to be an inevitable path for the poet, playwright, dramaturg and British Virgin Islands native.
In grad school at USC, where she was studying playwriting, O’Neal had a passing knowledge of dramaturgy. During her second year, she signed on as a dramaturg’s assistant at the Ojai Playwrights Conference. Suddenly, her passing knowledge became something larger.
“It was the most thrilling experience I ever had. I thought to myself, ‘This can’t be a job. It’s so fun,’” she said. “This is amazing, analyzing new works, talking to playwrights, digging into their work. All of it was beautiful for me.”
That led to more and more dramaturg roles, at the Lobby Theatre, RealTime Productions, Playwrights’ Arena and City Hearts.
If dramaturgy excited O’Neal before, getting the call to work on a play that has traced much of her life, put her on another plane. When she talks about A Raisin in the Sun, O’Neal’s words spill out in a torrent of excitement. She finds genuine joy in researching museum maps of 1950s Chicago, of unveiling what a family of four would have eaten at that time, of revealing that yes, Quaker Oats could have been on the menu. There’s also looking up some of the words from the Yourba Tribe in Nigeria that are cited in the script and establishing that “giving skin”—the horizontal high-five referenced on one page of the script—existed before the 1950s.
Those pesky details are anything but. O’Neal joked that her friends call her “The FBI,” because “I will crack any case, solve any mystery, find any piece of information that’s out there.”
“When it comes to a classic play like A Raisin in the Sun, my role in the room is to uphold the heart and integrity of the text,” she said. “I look up the various textures of the play and do intensive research that I make everyone in the room aware of. I look at what the world of the playwright looked like.”
“There are small levels, but the larger level is supporting (director) Khanisha Foster’s vision, which is a fantastic one,” she said. “… A feature of doing a classic play is not having the playwright in the room, because Lorraine was taken from us at such a young age. Not being able to lean on her in the same way you would a living playwright and ask ‘what did you mean by that? What did you mean about this layer?’ That comes with the classic theatre canon.
“But the flip side of that is one of the most exciting parts of this and that’s watching the director, cast and designers and the entire team create and enact their vision and being able to support that. I think that Khanisha and the whole team are very much focused on feeling that Lorraine is being felt and being held in this space. That’s one of the most wonderful parts of working on this.”
O’Neal’s ninth-grade copy of A Raisin in the Sun didn’t make the trip out to Costa Mesa. But it’s never far from O’Neal’s mind. It’s a reminder of how her understanding of the play grew up with her, and how—like all great works of art—you find something new every time you read or see it.
“Every time I experience it, there’s another layer,” she said. “That’s the beautiful part about this play. It changes with you.”