In an era when movie theatres are dominated by the endless permutations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the notion of a Lorraine Hansberry Multiverse seems like either a highbrow parody or copyright quagmire. Yet playwrights seem inexorably drawn back to her seminal A Raisin in the Sun, and the results have been works that expand on the story of the Younger family and their home from a variety of angles: Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, Kwame Kwei-Armah‘s Beneatha’s Place, Kelundra Smith‘s Younger, Robert O’Hara‘s The Etiquette of Vigilance.
A similar kind of expansion and exploration of canonical work seems to spring up around the works of Arthur Miller, yielding both plays which extrapolate new stories rooted in the original, such as Eleanor Burgess’s Wife of a Salesman, or which seek to reframe Miller by imagining present-day people exploring his plays, as characters do with The Crucible in both Kimberly Belflower’s John Proctor Is the Villain and Sheri Wilner’s Kingdom City.
There is no universally agreed upon term for plays that take off from prior works, which date back at least to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and more recently saw the unexpected return of Nora Helmer in Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2. Riffs? Homages? Responses? Indictments? Whatever the nomenclature, there’s an undeniable appeal for playwrights to engage in conversation with, even dispute, earlier works.
Belflower, whose John Proctor is now having its premiere at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., said that her look at how present-day students respond to reading The Crucible had its genesis in the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017 and her simultaneous reading of Stacy Schiff’s new history of the infamous colonial trials, The Witches: Salem 1692.
“I’m from Southern Appalachia, in North Georgia,” Belfower explained, “and was thinking a lot about what it is to come of age in a rural place, what it is to come of age in the church, and to be given a series of rules for your life and expectations for what things are supposed to look like. Really just thinking about the way that we’re taught canonical literature as one of those systems of power—who gets to be in the canon and who doesn’t.”
Kelundra Smith recalled reading and directing a production of Raisin in high school, and wondering at the time “what the original dream was that got deferred. I don’t know what it was in my teenage mind that knew that some other dreams had had to be deferred in order for this one to be the one that they’re anchoring on.”
That question led Smith to imagine Lena Younger’s initial move to Chicago and her life there with her husband, which predates the action of Raisin. This also allowed Smith to address an aspect of Black life not often portrayed in dramatic works, one which echoes across decades.
“We don’t get a lot of Great Migration stories—we get a lot of Great Depression stories,” said Smith. “People forget that when it comes to America’s history, Black people are often dealing with two crises at a time, not just one. We’ve seen this with the pandemic: We have a racial reckoning and we have COVID-19. We can talk about that for every decade in American history. In the 1930s, Black people were dealing with the Great Migration and the Great Depression. In the 1940s, Black people are dealing with World War II and trying to get anti-lynching legislation passed. In the 1950s, Black people are dealing with interstates and the development of the suburbs mowing through their communities and the Korean War. In the 1960s, Black people are dealing with the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.”
On a more personal note, she found a version of dream deferment in her own family story. While she was in high school, her mother wanted to go back to school to get her Ph.D. and become a college professor, but with Smith getting ready to go to college, her father worried about the cost.
“He was like, ‘We have too much going on.’ She enrolled anyway and ended up dropping out. A decade later though, she did end up becoming a professor. I thought: ‘I’ve seen my mother defer her dreams. I know what this looks like.’ As I got older, thinking about the different ways in which I kind of avoided being a writer for a long time made me think about the way I deferred my own dreams.”
Indeed, Smith credited writing Younger (which had a reading at Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre in February) with helping her through writer’s block on another project. While stuck writing a play called The Wash, she said, “God said to me, ‘Go back and write the first play you ever thought about writing and you’ll be able to finish this one.’ Studying Lorraine Hansberry’s structure and the way she had her characters divulge information, and the style of writing in A Raisin in the Sun, taught me how to structure a script and how to write a play.”
Burgess also invoked her mother in thinking about the origin of Wife of a Salesman, in which she imagines an encounter between Linda Loman and the woman with whom her husband had an affair in Boston. (The play had its premiere in March at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Ill. and will be seen in September at Milwaukee Rep.) She recalled rereading Death of a Salesman after she had finished graduate school at the same time her own mother happened to do so as well.
“She said, ‘Do you know that this is sort of the story of our family?’” Burgess said. “I had kind of known I knew that my maternal grandfather, who I had barely met, he died when I was 2, had been a salesman in Brooklyn in the ’50s and ’60s. I later found out—I can talk about this now because everyone involved is dead—but he’d had multiple affairs and my maternal grandmother had had some issues with mental illness.”
She continued, “That comment from my mother—the realization that, instead of being so abstract and old-timey, it was actually people that I sort of knew in a family story, that I had some access to, because I knew my grandmother—really started to make it percolate for me and made me reread the play with women that I knew in mind.”
Burgess said that her exploration of Miller came with a mix of emotions, equal parts attraction and repulsion. She praised Miller’s focus on average, ordinary people as reflective of American civilization at large and the oppressive forces that weigh on those people, saying that his warnings in 1949 were both impressive and depressing. But she went on to say, “I get so frustrated because he brings such humanism and such attention to Willy, and he does not have it for his female characters. It’s like a total blinder that Linda’s the person who says attention must be paid, and she doesn’t insist that attention be paid to her and her plight. The character that Willy has an affair with is literally just called The Woman, doesn’t have a name, and doesn’t have anything to make her a person other than sort of being this cackling nightmare from Willy’s recollections.”
Belflower has similarly mixed praise for Miller, even referring to The Crucible as a master class before turning to her reservations, cheifly that John Proctor is a married man having a sexual relationship with an emotionally vulnerable 16-year-old employee whom he then spurns, which Belflower described as “harnessing his anger as a weapon.”
“The title of my play is a little bit intentionally provocative,” Belflower acknowledged. “But I can definitely see a case for John Proctor being called a villain. At the very least, this is a play about a lot of really complicated things. Maybe because of Arthur Miller’s relationship with women—I don’t want to psychoanalyze that, but it was really interesting to see what he clearly thought of John Proctor, and what we all have thought of John Proctor, given how we’re taught, versus how I read him on the page.”John Proctor is not Belflower’s first play to engage with a prior work of dramatic literature: Her play Lost Girl revisited Wendy Darling from Peter Pan, 20 years after the events of the original story. Speaking of the appeal of engaging with prior works, she said, “It becomes a vehicle for me to explore something that’s more personal to me, or a question I have about the world I’m currently living in. I think that it’s just a really useful tool to kind of extend a hand to the audience , and it also is just really fun. I think I’m always comparing moments in my life and in the world to things that I’ve read or characters that I know.”
In expanding upon existing plays, Belflower said that one of her goals is to bring a change of perspective both to the specific plays themselves and to the theatrical repertoire at large.
“I hope that they prompt at least a reconsideration of how we talk about those plays and those writers,” she said. “Instead of assuming that one interpretation is the interpretation, to say, ‘Okay, this thing has been in the canon for how many years? Let’s like really hold it up to that standard, let’s really interrogate it, let’s ask different questions than the ones we’ve been asking.’ It’s not necessarily to argue for The Crucible to be removed from the canon, but what else can be in the canon? How else can we make room for more things?”
Burgess almost echoed Belflower, saying, “Our dramatic archetypes in our dramatic structures are still so deeply embedded in every part of how we understand our own lives. I was both interested in what happens if you say, ‘Attention must be paid to these other characters besides Willy Loman.’ I was also interested in: What has this play done to me? What has its centrality in the American canon, the American psychology, done to me and women like me, and our understanding of what a story is, what a tragedy is, and what a character is?”
In the case of Hansberry, Smith considers Younger a loving descendent of Raisin rather than a challenge to it.
“I believe that what Lorraine did was she ignited a fire for next generations to be able to run with the torch,” said Smith. “That has reverberated throughout Black theatre for several decades and through the American theatre for several decades. This is just one other candle she’s lit.”
Howard Sherman (he/him) has been the U.S. columnist for The Stage newspaper in London since 2012. He is the author of Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century (Methuen).
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