Alison Sealy-Smith was in tears preparing for her Raisin audition scene.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN by Lorraine Hansberry, directed by Weyni Mengesha, with Alison Sealy-Smith, Charles Officer, Abena Malika and Cara Ricketts. Presented by Soulpepper at the Young Centre (55 Mill). Opens tonight (Thursday, October 16) and runs to November 15, Monday-Saturday 7:30 pm, mats Wednesday and Saturday 1:30 pm. $34-$65, stu $28, rush $20 (stu $5). 416-866-8666.
Alison Sealy-Smith almost didn't audition for A Raisin In The Sun, Lorraine Hansberry's history-making 1959 play.
The first Broadway production by a female black playwright, Raisin was helmed by Lloyd Richards, Broadway's first black director. The tale of a tenement-dwelling Chicago family with hopes of a better future thanks to the deceased father's insurance policy, the play explores their conflicting dreams of that future.
"I wasn't sure I wanted to perform in it," admits Sealy-Smith on the phone from Calgary, where the Soulpepper production played before coming to Toronto.
"We all think we know more about certain icons than we actually do. I assumed I knew Raisin very well. After all, I'd seen it, and thought it depicted types we've seen often."
Rereading the play, though, gave Sealy-Smith second thoughts about Lena Younger, the matriarch who has to decide how to spend the insurance money.
"I looked at my audition scene and was in tears by the end of it. I connected with it on a deep level and had an immediate, visceral gut reaction to the material."
That's when she knew she had to throw out her preconceptions about the play and come to it fresh.
"Maybe that's what it means for a work of literature to be a classic," she ponders. "It's so well written, touches one's own humanity so deeply, and resonates and glows no matter how often you look at it."
Lena's children all look to the promise that money can bring them. Her son Walter wants to become a businessman in his own right instead of chauffeuring a white man; his wife, Ruth, wants a home for her young son. Lena's daughter Beneatha dreams of being a doctor and is just discovering her African roots.
"The idea of family is at the centre of the story," says Sealy-Smith, whose work includes The Polished Hoe, Cast Iron and The Adventures Of A Black Girl In Search Of God.
"But just as important is the need for and the cost of dreams, the collision of different dreams and what happens when dreams aren't satisfied," she adds, hinting at the line from a Langston Hughes poem about unfulfilled hopes that gives the play its title. ("What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / Like a raisin in the sun?...")
Does the script, now almost a half-century old, have a dated feel?
"Sure," she admits, "we've moved forward to a year when a black man stands a hair's breadth away from being the U.S. president. But on lots of levels, we haven't moved on. We still live in a world of racism and profiling.
"We Canadians are a society of immigrants, which Lena would understand. She was part of the migration to the north, and her kids have a whole different worldview. Lena has to reach across a chasm with trust in her heart."
The one thing that Sealy-Smith consciously avoids is stereotyping.
"I don't want to present an icon, the archetype of the strong black matriarch, a personification of love or wisdom. Lena is a human being trying to make sense of her world and that of her children, a loving woman who can make mistakes and might be wrong."
And what about the importance of Soulpepper doing this show?
"I hope it's a start rather than an end unto itself, a commitment to recognizing the richness of all sorts of classics, telling stories of people from other cultures," she says. "That's the only way to broaden and deepen the understanding of what defines a theatre classic."