Robert O’Hara has been considered everything from an enfant terrible to a breath of fresh air as a playwright and director, out to upend theatre conventions and systemic oppression wherever he goes. His work has both delighted and dismayed critics and audiences with its uncompromising vigor.
But even a provocateur goes through phases, and as he would the first to point out, his iconoclasm is actually part of a rich tradition of envelope-pushing Black theatre. While O’Hara is best known for directing new work—both his own plays, including Insurrection: Holding History, Bootycandy, Barbecue, and Mankind, and others’, as in his direction of Jeremy O. Harris’s controversial Slave Play on Broadway, which earned him a 2020 Tony nomination—he has lately turned his attention to established pieces. These have included a divisive modern-dress revival of O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Minetta Lane Theatre in February; a new revival of Anthony Davis and Thulani Davis’s 1986 opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X at Detroit Opera in May, which is touring the nation this year and next as part of a producing consortium of five opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera and Opera Omaha; and, this past summer, his debut as director of the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park, with a staging of Richard III starring Danai Gurira.
Now he’s turned his energies to Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal A Raisin in the Sun, which begins performances at New York’s Public Theater next week and runs through Nov. 6. What will this self-proclaimed Black queer Afrofuturist writer-director bring to this canonical work—the first by a Black person, let alone a queer Black woman, to make it to Broadway? The play has returned twice to the Main Stem, with its last production there in 2014 starring Denzel Washington, Sophie Okonedo, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson, and it has been a staple of regional houses (if American Theatre’s Top 10 Most-Produced Plays lists are any guide).
Admitted O’Hara in an interview, “Raisin never really sat with me in a real way until I became a director and a writer and was able to engage it as a piece of genius from an artistic standpoint.” It was as a fellow playwright that he could appreciate “the sheer audacity and the breadth of knowledge, and the thrill of language inside the play…It remains to me one of the greatest plays ever written.”
It’s also not his first go-round with Raisin; he helmed it previously at Rochester, N.Y.’s Geva Theatre Center in 2012 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2019. Coming to it a third time, he said, is “sort of an evolutionary experience for me, in that I’m still finding new things and interesting ways into the story.”
In the new production, Francois Battiste stars as the angry, aspirational Walter Lee Younger; Mandi Madsen portrays Walter’s steadfast wife, Ruth Younger; Paige Gilbert plays Walter’s emancipated sister Beneatha Younger; and John Clay III and Mister Fitzgerald play her polar opposite suitors, Joseph Asagai and George Murchison, respectively. Tonya Pinkins essays stern family matriarch, Lena Younger. Based in part on Hansberry’s own family, the Youngers are a determined, damaged clan caught in midst of generational trauma, social and political constructs, cultural imperatives, and the dehumanizing economics of real estate. And their individual and collective dreams and passions run headlong into realities that make it difficult to find lasting purchase.
O’Hara said he thinks of the new version as a reset of Raisin for a new era.
“I feel Raisin is in many ways a tragedy, because the end of the play leaves us in 1960 in the suburbs of Chicago, and that was a horrific landscape for an African American group of people,” he said. “I’m excited to engage in that conversation with this being in New York.” He said he figures that staging the play on the Lower East Side, he “can actually be a little more gritty, I would say, in interpretation, in that these people are living in the projects. It is the late ’50s. It is not cute, it is not sweet, and it is not fun. It’s a life-and-death struggle. I want to really invest in what it means for this family if they do not get out of the situation.”
One of Raisin’s legacies it that it has inspired a number of related plays—both prequels, like Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park or Kelundra Smith’s Younger, and sequels, like Kwame Kwei Armah’s Beneatha’s Place, and O’Hara’s own The Etiquette of Vigilance, a 2010 play which ran at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, and which imagines the Younger family five decades later, focusing on the now middle-aged younger brother Travis and his queer daughter Lorraine, who’s entering college and feeling the pressure of the family’s long-held desire to achieve the American Dream.
In all he does, both as a writer and an interpreter, O’Hara brings his unapologetic imprint. That’s what his collaborators, and his audiences, sign up for, he reasons.
“I think that my job is to bring all of who I am to whatever I’m doing,” he said. “I don’t handle anything with kid gloves. You know that I’m going to find new avenues in the work, otherwise you wouldn’t have asked me.” He doesn’t second-guess himself, he added: “I don’t really think about how I am going to address certain things. I just simply take the work as a living organism and gather as many interesting people as possible to work on it, and we find out what we can find out in the time given.”
This approach entails a certain concentration, in that he tries to both tune out external criticism and avoid over-reverence of the work at hand. What both impulses have in common: an indifference to expectations.
“What I cannot concentrate on is the moment where people are going to ultimately come into a room and tell me that I failed and put those ideas of how I failed in the press,” O’Hara said. “I have to continue to investigate the story that I’m telling. I cannot therefore put something on a pedestal and make it into some sort of crystal stair, if you will, and still be able to work on it and get to the actual biomechanics of it all. I like to dig into it all, whether it be Shakespeare, Hansberry, Malcolm X. They all are simply stories that I’m telling.”
He doesn’t see his gigs directing canonical works as marking a new career chapter, per se, but as a function of opportunity.
“It’s not me entering a new phase; it’s people now acknowledging the fact directors should be able to do as many different types of work as possible. But many theatres don’t offer Black people classic plays, and certainly don’t offer them to people known for doing new work. Because everybody, especially the gatekeepers of tradition, would like the plays done in a way that doesn’t offend anyone. They’re protective of these plays—for no reason whatsoever, because plays don’t need protection. So it’s not me that has changed. It’s that the theatre has evolved.”
He is not alone, he pointed out.
“I stand on the shoulders of several artists I admire who were also considered ahead of their time or confounding,” O’Hara said, citing his mentor at the Public, George C. Wolfe, as well playwrights like Hansberry, Alice Childress, and Adrienne Kennedy. “There are many, many people and many, many avenues in which people are trying to make everybody happy. But being in a Black queer body, I was never going to be able to do that, so I didn’t try.”
He’s had his share of accolades and awards over the years—an Oppenheimer Award for Best New American Play (Insurrection), an Obie Award Special Citation (In the Continuum), an NAACP Award for Best Director (Eclipsed), a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play (Antebellum), a Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Drama (Bootycandy), a playwright residency grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and of course his nods for Slave Play.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s ambivalent about plaudits and critiques.
“While I think the Tony Awards are an exciting recognition of talent, I don’t think it’s something one should count on or should depend on or even reference as a need in one’s career,” he said. “The moment you allow something to have that much weight, then the absence of it will have just as much weight. Artists have to protect themselves from their critics and from their proponents as well, and think of everything as a journey.”
Now that he’s in a position to mentor young people in the ways he was mentored by Wolfe—an opportunity O’Hara called “one of the joys of my career”—he’s also conscious that many more Black theatre artists are finding opportunities than before. Of course, many of these “new” voices have been around a long time, and are only being accorded spaces and platforms once closed to them. And though he’s prominent in this Black creative resurgence, O’Hara doesn’t feel like he’s part of any vanguard.
“There’s certainly tons of artists I’m excited to name as friends and colleagues and mentors,” he said. “I don’t really find myself being at the forefront of anything. I’m just in the middle of it all. I’m excited for all of us to evolve and become better selves and excite each other to do more interesting and thrilling works of art.
“I don’t think there’s some sort of movement,” he continued. “We’ve always been here. I’m not the first writer to investigate homosexuality and Blackness. Hansberry was a queer woman, James Baldwin was gay, George Wolfe is gay. But now the majority of people who have been the gatekeepers of theatre are acknowledging that there is more out there than just them. The lie of white supremacy is that we didn’t exist until yesterday.” But “now that many people are addressing anti-Blackness and white supremacy, the people who have been standing there and doing the work for some time are now being seen. That’s exciting to me.”
Leo Adam Biga (he/him) is an Omaha-based freelance writer and the author of the 2016 book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.
An earlier version of this piece erroneously stated that A Raisin in the Sun had won the 1959 Pulitzer.
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