Anne Kauffman, the director of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, recently sat down with Jonathan L. Green, the production’s dramaturg, to discuss Lorraine Hansberry’s body of work, her personal interest in the play and what it means to be a citizen of the United States at this moment.
Jonathan L. Green: What originally drew you to this script, and what makes you want to bring it to the stage right now?
Anne Kauffman: When I was mentoring at New York University in the mid-2000s, one of my students wanted to do the play for her thesis. I was so moved by it. At its heart, the play is about the marriage of Sidney and Iris, a couple with an eight-year age gap. Up until now Sidney, who is disenchanted and probably going through a mid-life crisis, has been a hero and father figure to his wife. Iris, meanwhile, is growing up, changing and struggling to discover her own identity, all without her husband even paying attention. I was very taken with that story as I was facing difficulties in my own marriage. Sidney is a charismatic, absolutely compelling, larger-than-life character who has a bracing “come-to-Jesus” moment towards the end of the play, but I think Iris has the more conscious and hard-won journey. Iris ultimately teaches Sidney something about the world. I also love how the play presents a snapshot of a certain time in history—I love the environment of Sidney’s West Village bohemian apartment, which is a meeting place for all sorts of people from different walks of life, backgrounds and political views. Today, it seems like we’ve all collected friends who share the same point of view—everyone is mostly friends with people with whom they are politically and socially aligned. I love this fiery coming together of radically different points of view. The line that strikes to the heart, the clarion call of the play and what makes it so very relevant, is Sidney’s comment to his sister-in-law Mavis, “The world is about crack down the middle. We’ve gotta change, or fall in the crack.” How true that is right at this moment, no?
JLG: I read a piece Hansberry wrote about the general public’s reactions to A Raisin in the Sun. She became exasperated when people, over and over, referred to the play as a story only about black characters; she said her play is about “an American family’s conflict with certain of the mercenary values of its society, and its characters were negroes.” She was uncomfortable with the fetishizing of stories of black suffering. From many of her essays and articles, we know Hansberry was a radical feminist even before second-wave feminism really began. So it’s interesting that most of her plays, including this one, feature male protagonists, and this one in particular features mostly white, bohemian characters. How do you see this play fitting into her body of work?
AK: The thing that is so interesting about Hansberry is that, yes, she was a playwright, but writing plays was only one mode of her activism. As you point out, she wrote essays and articles, she organized and agitated, she was vocal in the media, etc. In other words, this play needs to be viewed in the context and as a piece of her multifarious writings and activities, not just her plays. And, if viewed this way, we see that she is calling the white liberal to action. She wants white liberals to re-engage themselves by paying attention to what’s truly happening in the world. As far as the women are concerned, this play actually began as The Sign in Jenny Reed’s Window. Even though Hansberry swapped Jenny out for Sidney, a male protagonist, it’s the women in the play who spur change. She frequently wrote not only about black people living in the shadow of white people, but how women live in the shadow of men. And we see that very clearly in this play.
JLG: A large part of Hansberry’s reason for writing this play was a response to the post-war existentialism and absurdism that was so popular in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, for which she cared little. Ennui and not caring were in vogue. Her humanist nature was on display when she wrote Sidney’s line, “The ‘why’ of why we are here is an intrigue for adolescents. The ‘how’ is what commands the living.” Do you feel like that idea is just as potent or has it taken on new meaning?
AK: I do feel like that sentiment is just as potent now, or in any case, I am personally in complete agreement with it at this point in my life. In terms of absurdist and existentialist art vs. realism and art, as Hansberry said, that is “about things,” I believe those opposing, or at least disparate, ideas have become more integrated in our generation. Meaning, the way in which Hansberry mixed the absurd with realism happens with more regularity in contemporary theater. There is an integration suggesting that life, real life, is actually absurd. At times we feel hopeless, but somehow we need to overcome these moments of hopelessness in order to make something happen. Hansberry saw these as opposing forces, and I see them as part of the same cycle.
JLG: Hansberry said in a speech about civil rights, “We have to find a way… to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal—and become an American radical.” Do you feel that same need for radicalism in our present day?
AK: I would say, yes, that’s something that’s always true. Complacency is the rot of a culture. People who are now the age that Sidney and Iris were in the ‘60s have gotten quite comfortable. We’re not coming out of WWII. I feel like there is a certain complacency in which the last 50 years or so have allowed us to live quite comfortably. But now we’re facing a rather frightening political reality, where somebody like Donald Trump can win a presidential nomination. We are in a rather frightening social reality, where there is still an urgent need for a Black Lives Matter movement; what year is this? So, yes, I believe there is a need. Do you ever think that need for action goes away?
JLG: To me, it feels like there is so much cultural clutter right now that can distract us from our real social issues, the stark politics of it all. Once again, the bohemian lifestyle is so attractive, and yet it’s so hard to get people to go out and vote.
AK: And think about the Greenwich Village of the ‘60s—it was not like the upscale, precious neighborhood it is now. There was not as much distance between people’s consciousness and the realities of what was going on in the country as there is now. I think the best plays take these large political and social themes and manifest them on a more personal level. Everything we’re currently talking about in terms of political and social struggles is articulated through the Brusteins’ marriage: Sidney not only has to be an insurgent politically, he has to make choices, re-engage and work hard for his marriage as well. He is blind to the fact that the most important thing to him in his life, his wife, is changing. It’s easy to ignore change, to avoid facing it both personally and politically. Iris has a great line, “Let’s put up a fight for [our marriage], Sidney! I mean it—let’s fight like hell for it!” And Sidney just walks out. For me, their marriage is a microcosm of our willful ignorance of the pain and suffering that is happening right before our eyes. And their marriage, the activism that needs to happen between two people, is my entrance into the play.