IPAL Presents “A Raisin In The Sun”
● By Aimee Cormier
By Shanna Perkins
Occasionally, pieces of performance art are so powerful they have ability to transcend generations and inspire conversations about social and cultural change. “A Raisin in the Sun” is one such piece of art. The play by Lorrain Hansberry, which made its Broadway debut in 1959, depicts the everyday struggles of an impoverished African American family living on Chicago’s south side. With the strong belief that the play has the ability to create an open dialogue within the Acadiana community, Director Phanat Xanamane and IPAL present “A Raisin in the Sun.”
“I’m so excited that ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ is finally happening,” expresses Phanat of his directorial debut. “It all started in 2011 when I went to my first IPAL production. I went to see their production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific,’ which has an Asian cast. It was a very high-quality production, but there were no Asians on stage. About two years ago, I approached some of the board members and asked them about the lack of diversity on stage and within the audience. I began to think of ways I could correct the lack of diversity and decided that I should try to direct ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’”
Phanat recalls first falling in love with the play’s universal message after seeing the Broadway revival while he was living in New York in 2004. When he returned to his hometown of New Iberia, he decided that the play’s message of love could translate on a larger scale to an entire community. To ensure an open and meaningful dialogue around the play, Phanat recruited his friends and Envision da Berry Vice President Caryn Winters, Ph.D.
“This is IPAL’s first production in which the cast is majority African American,” Winters states. “The Essannee Theatre is a space where many residents can still recall ‘whites only’ entrances and seating. ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ which was the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, opens a space for us to talk about the American dream and how race, economic background and ethnicity can dramatically impact how people experience its pursuit.”
Phanat confesses that he was initially concerned there wouldn’t be enough African American who would be willing to audition. But to his pleasant surprise, he was wrong. The cast of eight hails from across Acadiana – Lafayette, St. Martinville, New Iberia and Franklin. In addition to the cast, Phanat says members of the community have shown remarkable support and are eager to be involved in anyway they can. There has also been an outpouring of support and excitement from IPAL.
“IPAL always tries to serve our entire community,” says IPAL President Kim Monroe. “It would get boring if we only offered one type of show. This play will speak to our audience of experiences of the African American community. We are very proud to have this Tony Award winning play on our IPAL stage.”
Phanat says he believes that creating a more diverse source of support for IPAL will be extremely beneficial for the organization’s long-term sustainability. Each of the cast members is new to IPAL. With new cast members, come new audience members.
“This particular show has brought many new actors and actresses into our theater, so there will be new faces. It’s so exciting to see our IPAL family grow,” Monroe exclaims. “Phanat is a wonderful director and will bring the best out of them, as well as the relations, emotions and feelings of the characters they portray.”
Phanat submitted the play to the IPAL reading committee two years ago, but says he believes that with the recent national and local spotlights on racial division, it is critical to begin an open conversation within the community. As an assistant professor of organizational communication at UL Lafayette, Winters will use her expertise in communication to allow “A Raisin in the Sun” to act as a stepping stone in the bridging of gaps in communication. “Phanat and I have recently been doing a lot of thinking about the importance of dialogue in communities,” Winters explains.
“If we look at our current social and political context, we can observe a couple of phenomena. The first being our social networks are growing increasingly homogenous,” she continues. “Research shows that people have fewer opportunities to hear the other side. The second is the consequences of only engaging in dialogue with people who agree with us; we become increasingly polarized. The third, the stories we begin to tell ourselves and each other about a situation, a community or our democracy tend to lack the complexity and richness that results from including a diversity of voices. So if we are having conversations about race in our community and our perspectives aren’t informed by the range of voices and experiences in our community, the story we begin to tell about race in our community is incomplete.”
In an effort to expedite the conversations toward unity, Winters will conduct a “talk back” following the opening night performance on Sept. 10. She will facilitate the dialogue that will be centered on specific questions or themes among audience members. There will also be an opportunity for the audience to pose questions to one another. The hope is that through this talk back the audience will maintain a safe and respectful space where people can share their experiences and lend their voices to issues within the community regarding race.
“Our goal is to begin a series of inclusive dialogues in order to foster mutual understanding,” Winters explains of the impact she intends the talk back to have. “We want to create a safe space for people to begin having tough, but necessary conversations. The way that we articulate problems impacts the ways in which policy makers, community leaders and citizens go about addressing those problems.”
Phanat, Winters and the IPAL team believe that “A Raisin in the Sun” will create a strong and beneficial diversity within the theatre. But more than that, they believe it will present the opportunity to begin a healthy conversation about racial division within the community. “A Raisin in the Sun” has inspired people for generations and the team behind this presentation hopes to take that inspiration a step further by not letting it fade away when the curtains close.
“People truly hold this play as an iconic piece of art,” Phanat says passionately. “I think people will go through this journey with the family and they can relate these issues of race, religion or generations back to the community. Any art is supposed to be a reflection of life and reality, but it’s embellished and interpreted in new ways. I want the audience to leave with an appreciation for the arts and theatre. I want them to see how important it can be to our community.”