This is one of three pieces about new revivals of Lorraine Hansberry’s seldom-produced second play. You can check out the other two here.
For Rachel Brosnahan, all roads lead back to theatre. The celebrated actor and producer combines unparalleled range, depth, and power in her work without batting an eye. She has spent her professional career engaging questions of sexism, confidence, and empowerment as she plays misunderstood, unfulfilled, or forgotten women onstage and screen.
Brosnahan’s 2009 debut at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre hinted at her ascent; she had just finished her first year at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute through NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts when she performed there in Bridget Carpenter’s Up. She made a double splash in 2013, both with a breakout role on Netflix’s House of Cards as Rachel Posner, a high-end escort turned White House pawn, and with her Broadway debut in The Big Knife. Her next high-profile one-two punch came with the role of Desdemona opposite David Oyewelo and Daniel Craig in Othello at New York Theatre Workshop in 2016, followed the next year by her lead turn in the Amazon Prime Video series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, for which she has since won a Primetime Emmy and two Golden Globes.
Given that success, theatregoers might reasonably have wondered if they’d see her onstage again; stage actors who make successful transitions into film and television don’t always come back. Not to worry: She’s now starring in the first major New York revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which starts previews at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) this weekend. The play arrives at a time of continued political unrest and global uncertainty, making the play’s discussion of corruption, race, and gender even more vital.
Brosnahan stars opposite Oscar Isaac as Iris Brustein, a struggling actress in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, who grows tired of her husband’s barbs and must decide whether to end the marriage. Obie winner Anne Kauffman directs.
This project marks a homecoming within a homecoming for Brosnahan. She’s not only back onstage after House of Cards and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but she returns to the stage with a heightened sense of service and care for the art and the industry. “When the opportunity came around, I jumped at the chance to work with this team and be a part of bringing this underappreciated piece back into public consciousness,” she told me in a recent interview.
I spoke to her about how she turned frustrations into career assets, unspoken gender rules, honoring Lorraine Hansberry’s legacy, and where her life parallels The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ALICIA RAMÍREZ: This will only be the second New York staging of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. What made this revival the right production for your New York theatre homecoming?
RACHEL BROSNAHAN: I, like most people, was familiar with Lorraine Hansberry’s work through A Raisin in the Sun but had never heard of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window until our director, Anne, asked me to join a reading back in 2019. I was struck by how timely the play felt, despite having been written 60 years ago. It’s an incredibly poignant piece of theatre, and I fell in love with it, Iris, Oscar, and Anne all at once. They were originally supposed to put the play up in 2020, which obviously didn’t happen. When the opportunity came around, I jumped at the chance to work with this team and be a part of bringing this underappreciated piece back into public consciousness.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window amplifies universal, familiar feelings, like the torturous pain of heartbreak, but also discusses political corruption, race, and gender inequity. This is a lot for anyone engaging with the play. How are you preparing for and approaching a character like Iris?
The key to Iris has been finding her openness and impulsivity. She’s often described as being childlike, which can be beautiful, and can also mean that she’s naïve when it comes to some of the realities about the world the play grapples with.
Both Iris and Midge, your character in Marvelous Miss Maisel, might be seen as unlikable characters. How has it been for you to explore that side of them, especially in an industry that can treat artists like a commodity and there’s still some pressure on women to be likable?
There’s certainly pressure for women, which extends to female characters, to be likable. I find myself drawn to characters who are mid-evolution, whether forced upon them, in Midge’s case, or brought upon by the restlessness of the soul, like Iris. I find it difficult not to like someone who is committed to their own growth. There are, of course, things that both of these characters do that I’m frustrated by and expect audiences to be as well, but if we’ve done our jobs, audiences should still be invested in their journeys as imperfect people stumbling through a world that wasn’t designed for them. Hopefully, even if we don’t like them all the time, we love them because we recognize our dualities in them and believe in their ability to grow.
Iris is an actor, and actors often depend on others to say yes to do their work. Although you have had great success, has founding Scrap Paper Pictures, your production company, changed your perspective or returned some of your autonomy?
I founded the company in 2019 because I’m intimately familiar with the power of someone’s “yes,” and am the beneficiary of a number of people taking huge chances on me at key moments that changed my life. It was important to me to pay that forward and know how ephemeral art-making can feel. We’re committed to radically supporting artists we work with, in front of and behind the camera, as early in the process as is helpful through the completion of a project.
One of the hardest parts about acting is the waiting game, even in success. I’ve loved the opportunity to be more active in finding and developing projects, both original ideas and adaptations, alongside brilliant creatives. Particularly because, despite a lot of conversation in our industry, there’s still such a lack of dynamic roles for women and other underrepresented groups. I’m not in everything we produce, but we’re always aiming to make our central characters three-dimensional, surprising, and nuanced, and it’s been really gratifying to hear other actors excited by roles they don’t see elsewhere.
What do you hope audiences gain from this revival?
I hope they get a fuller picture of the artist and activist that was Lorraine Hansberry. She was such an important voice, gone way too soon. And I hope they feel inspired to do something—big, small, or anything in between.
What does your vision of a better theatre industry look like?
One where we listen as loudly as we talk.
Alicia Ramírez (she/her) is a New York-based entertainment journalist covering theatre, film, music, and TV. She has written for global publications, including NBC News, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and Grammy.com. On Instagram @aliciaramgar.
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