Joi Gresham, director of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, has dedicated herself to promoting the works of Lorraine Hansberry and ensuring public access to them online (at Lhlt.org), in person (at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City) and in print. Recently she chatted with Dramaturg Jonathan L. Green about her impressive work at the Trust and what Hansberry’s legacy means to her.
Jonathan L. Green: You’ve been the director of the Trust for over 10 years, is that right?
Joi Gresham: Yes, since 2005 when my mother passed away. She was the executor since 1991 when my father Robert Nemiroff died. He was Lorraine’s former husband and literary executor. Prior to my being the director of the Trust, if you wanted to tap into the Lorraine Hansberry legacy or get in touch with the literary estate, it was pretty hit-or-miss on how you would find those individuals. I wanted to create a point of entry for scholars and writers, for people who want to know more about the Hansberry legacy and canon, and for her enormous group of fans. It’s the mission of the Trust to be a public face for Lorraine Hansberry so that people have access to her work and her papers. There’s a place for them to go to find out more. My mother was responsible for depositing the Hansberry papers at the Schomburg Center. That was in 2000, so that predated my coming on board. That was a major event in her leadership. Now people who live all over world know about the collection and they can link into the collection and look at the finders guide.
I work very closely with anyone who is doing a major Hansberry project. We usually talk and I hear about their projects, which fascinate me to no end. It’s usually the beginning of a relationship where I help them and give them access, permission and encouragement. Because it, in fact, is a way that I can learn more about Lorraine, too. My father had an extraordinary relationship with Lorraine, and because of their closeness, personally and creatively, his work became an extension of Lorraine’s, in an unusual kind of way. My mother, because she was married to him and was a writer herself, was fascinated with Lorraine and kind of extended the focus of that working relationship that my father and Lorraine had. I didn’t have a direct of a relationship with Lorraine, except through growing up as an extended part of Lorraine’s family, so I came to understand so much of Lorraine through my father. I’m a step removed from Lorraine, but the silver lining is that I am free to imagine Lorraine in ways my father couldn’t. I’m free to let Lorraine be expanded in someone else’s hands.
For example, my father made certain decisions right after Lorraine’s death about how to bring The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window to Random House, which was the first publisher of the play. And then he prepared an acting edition for Samuel French, and he made certain other decisions and choices. When the play was revised 20 years later, he had rethought it completely; at that point he was really focused on restoring it, going back to Lorraine’s notes, reaching deep to recall what Lorraine wanted and struggling with what she wanted to see on stage that hadn’t been seen on stage up until that point. So that’s a really different edition.
Working on a new production at Oregon Shakespeare Festival a few years ago, the director, the dramaturg and I were trying to piece it all together from the three different published scripts. We all had very strong feelings about restoring the play. I represented the playwright and the director focused on taking it from the page to the stage. It was a very interesting project.
Then this project with director Anne Kauffman came about. She has an equally passionate dedication and commitment to the play. I met her close to 10 years ago, and she bit into the play and had to see it done. We’ve had to fight for a while to find the right theater, the right partners to do it, and now we’re working with the Goodman. She said, “We have the theater, we have to do this!” My feeling was, well, let’s continue the work the team at Oregon Shakespeare Festival began; I wanted to go further. Anne and I began talking about this production, what she wanted to do for this production, and I thought. “Oh my god, I’m going to have to let go of everything that just happened at OSF as if it never happened and start the same process with Anne and see where she wants to take it!” All artists are different and the creative process with each is very different; you don’t know where it’s going to go. I’m really excited about what’s going to happen.
All of that is to say that we’re involved in an ongoing restoration of this play, we’re in a place of trying to not just restore, but really animate a conversation with Lorraine Hansberry. It was Lorraine’s most ambitious play. She felt it was an important play
because it was the play that she wrote right after A Raisin in the Sun, and in many ways it was the play that A Raisin in the Sun couldn’t be. She was very frustrated with the critical and popular reception of A Raisin in the Sun, and she wrote Sidney Brustein to be a play that had to be seriously considered. The play was very challenging, it really was so completely different than A Raisin in the Sun. The fact that she was talking about Greenwich Village and white Jewish intellectuals and a completely different atmosphere was incredibly challenging to her audience and to the critics—almost confrontational. She just went for it. It creates an uphill battle to understand and appreciate this play. But I know for myself, talking to such a broad audience, that people love this play. Many people think it’s her best play. It’s fascinating.
JLG: Anne and I have been talking about Lorraine’s humanism and activism—the play was speaking to a very specific time and place, but it also relates so much to the current messy political and social climate in our country. It’s interesting— this is only the second professional production in Chicago since it toured here in 1965 after it closed on Broadway. How do you see the play speaking to Chicago in 2016?
JG: It’s complex. In many ways, the play poses the same challenges it posed in 1964 when it opened. The greatest challenge is that it is powerful in its direct contrast to A Raisin in the Sun. It’s meant to be eye-opening, it’s meant to confront false assumptions about who Lorraine Hansberry was, what she had the right to write about, what she had the right to think about. To ask those questions in her hometown, in the town that’s synonymous with A Raisin in the Sun, means that we’re asking the audience to come with an open mind, to leave assumptions behind them. Be ready to have your mind blown. Be ready to be completely stunned at who this artist was and what she was committing herself to. If you know anything about Lorraine, you know that she was incredibly confident as a thinker, artist,playwright and woman. We’re challenged because we come into the theater and we assume it’s going to be a sort of sequel experience to A Raisin in the Sun, we expect to feel a certain way, we expect to leave knowing that it’s all going to be okay. I think Lorraine was intentionally, aesthetically, and artistically prepared to confront us. That was one of the primary purposes of this play.
Lorraine was dying when she wrote this play. That’s one of the things I think about a lot: there’s not a real finite answer to how much she understood about her chances of winning this battle with cancer. She was thinking about the end of her life, the things to which she was most committed, and what it meant to be fully engaged in the world. It’s a question she asks of each character: are you going to lie in the fetal position in the corner of the room with your thumb in your mouth? Are you going to stand on the sidelines and critique it? Are you going to abstract it and be of no use in your abstractions? Or are you going to be engaged in it and be a part of the solution? That’s what she’s asking, with a passion, a full-tilt commitment at the center of this play.
Those powerful questions are reaching us here and now in 2016. The thing that’s so interesting about Lorraine is that she was ahead of her time. She had an incredible political, cultural, social and historical understanding that allowed her to see things before they happened, or more importantly, to speak of them in her plays. In A Raisin in the Sun, she’s talking about the Civil Rights Movements that hadn’t happened yet. In Les Blancs, she’s talking about the liberation of African nations and the anti-colonial movements before they happened. With Sidney Brustein, she talks about second-wave feminism, the LBGTQ movement that was coming about, before they happened. She saw what we were about to enter into because she was such a committed student of history. She had an extraordinary understanding of world movements. A social movement would appear in one part of the world, and then would appear in another part of the world— these things happened in cycles.
[Sidney Brustein] is meant to be eye-opening, it’s meant to confront false assumptions about who Lorraine Hansberry was, what she had the right to write about, what she had the right to think about. To ask those questions in her hometown, in the town that’s synonymous with A Raisin in the Sun, means that we’re asking the audience to come with an open mind, to leave assumptions behind them. Be ready to have your mind blown.
JLG: I am wondering about some of your current goals for the Trust in the promotion of Lorraine’s work. I know you talked earlier about accessibility of her work; what are some other goals?
JG: This current season is exciting because Hansberry’s legacy is having a tremendous impact internationally. This year alone there are three new translations of A Raisin in the Sun: one in Swedish, the first Afro-Swedish translation is being performed and is on tour in Sweden and Finland; there was just the first Dutch translation of A Raisin in the Sun, which was just recently performed in the Netherlands; and the first Spanish translation is being produced this summer in Bogotá, Colombia. I didn’t see that coming. A Raisin in the Sun just closed in South Africa at the Market Theatre, the first major production of A Raisin in the Sun in Johannesburg. The thing that ties those altogether is this interest in the immigrant experience of Africans who have migrated and who are becoming part of societies all over the world. There’s an understanding of A Raisin in the Sun, this adoption of the story as an immigrant story, a story about home. I’ll take the Netherlands production as an example: I was contacted by a woman who wanted to bring A Raisin in the Sun to the Netherlands. And they were really interested in knowing anything about Hansberry, because they said, “We don’t have a national black theater, we are trying to create one and we want to know how it happens so tell us Hansberry’s story.” They wanted to adopt this play as a means to create a national black theater movement in their country, to create an audience, to create a group of playwrights who could be encouraged and mentored by the example of this playwright.
I find that a lot of my projects emerge partly because of the role that I play, which is really unique: not only am I the person who licenses the work, I’m the person who owns the copyrights. People reach out to the agents of the Trust who know me and my commitment and my interests. For example, one of my licensing representatives contacted me two years ago and said, “You are going to want to know about this—are you sitting down?” He said, “I received this letter from a woman from the National Theatre of the Ukraine and they want to do The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, and the letter will make you weep. I know that you are going to want to do this.” He sent me this letter basically saying: I love this play, this play has to be performed in the Ukraine now, this play is about our society, everybody needs to know this play, this play is amazing, can we do this play? We want to translate this play! I was just knocked out. I got back to my agent and said, “I personally want to do all that I can to assist them in doing this play. We are going to do all we can, no stops, full force. This play has to be done. My father’s parents came from the Ukraine. He would be weeping. They would be weeping to know that this play was being done in the Ukraine.” It is no small task, as you can imagine, to do a play of this power, this magnitude in the Ukraine. Our fingers are crossed that it will be done.
All of that is to say: things like that come to me because I am the person who holds the legacy—I am the steward. I shape the legacy. It’s important to me to sense new opportunities that are there for new possibilities for the Hansberry legacy, for new audiences, for new understandings of what these plays are about and who she was, and our need for her. And so in that way I have to be very open to new possibilities, and that may mean taking chances, taking risks as a literary executor. Saying yes to things that that my father couldn’t say yes to because his job was different than mine. He hadn’t built the legacy yet, he hadn’t secured the copyrights yet, he hadn’t yet fought the fights to secure Lorraine’s name in this canon. And so now I can look at all these possibilities.
This is the first time that I know of that in one season, four of Lorraine’s plays are being performed at once on major stages. A Raisin in the Sun is always being performed. Les Blancs is from time to time being revived. This is the second time that Sign is being done as a major revival. There is new interest now in a major revival of the musical Raisin. All of that is happening at the same time. I’m excited because my work is always to direct people beyond A Raisin in the Sun and to the other works, and to assist people in coming to understand Hansberry as being the complex, prolific and rich writer and visionary that she is and was. It’s a job that really pulls on the artist in me as much if not more than it does the daughter and the heir, so to speak. It encourages me to be creative and open and I’m happy doing that—because this production alone of Sidney Brustein at the Goodman in Anne’s hands is really an incredible opportunity. I can’t wait to see what she does with it. I can’t wait to meet the cast; I’m always looking forward to landing and meeting the cast. My shtick is to say, “Welcome to the family,” which is the truth of the matter. Welcome to a family of artists and performers who love Lorraine Hansberry’s work and love her vision. It’s the best job in the world.