Resisting Tr(i)umphalism? Consider Cross-Cultural Theatergoing

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Raisin in the Sun at Harlem Rep with A. J. Acevedo and Yanece Cotto.
A.J. Acevedo as George Murchison and Yanece Cotto at Beneatha Younger in Harlem Rep's revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Photo: Eric Myles.

Editor’s Note: In addition to contributing the Culture Askew column to CFR, I also teach two sections of the Intro to Theatre (aka Theatre 101) humanities course at Hunter College in the City University of New York (CUNY) system. The majority of my students are not theater majors. Many of them have either never been to a professional theater production or at most went once as part of a high school class trip.

For some it is a question of economics; for others, their family’s conservative religious culture frowns upon theatergoing. For still others, the art form is seen as a “whites-only” space of privilege to which they are not welcome or in which they will be targeted. For almost all of them, theater is at best a distant afterthought to other modes of communication or community or recreation. If they consider it at all, it’s an extra-special-occasion splurge to a Broadway musical.

As part of their course requirements, my students have to attend a professional performance of a play, musical, solo show, etc., and then write about it. I think the single most satisfying moment of this job is when a young person says to me that before my class they had never thought of attending the theater on a regular basis because it was too boring or too expensive or too snobby but now they can’t wait to go back. This Thanksgiving, I’d like to show my gratitude for all they’ve taught me by turning over my column to one of them.

Hunter may have the most diverse student body in the US, perhaps even the world. The composition of my classroom is an alt-right Alptraum of racial, religious, national, gender and class diversity. Watching these young people not only coexist peacefully but actively embrace their differences gives me immense hope for our future. One of my students, Nafiul Bahri, chose Harlem Rep’s recent revival of A Raisin in the Sun as the subject of his paper. It seemed in this perilous, dare I say deplorable, time that an 18-year-old Muslim son of immigrants responding to the first Broadway play to proudly declare that Black Lives Matter being staged by a community-based theater in an historically African-American neighborhood that is undergoing rapid gentrification was a dialogic voice we needed to hear.

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I am Nafiul Bahri. I was born in Queens, NY, and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for a short time, but I have lived in Staten Island for most of my life (13 years). I am currently a freshman at Hunter College with an undeclared major, although I am leaning towards the sciences and politics. Throughout my life, I have always had a deep interest in theater and acting. Not being the best in sports and music made me appreciate the role theater has in our human history and current world.

mario-c-brown-and-nafiul-bahri
Actor Mario C . Brown (l) meets the author after the performance.

In elementary school, I remember taking part in my first play, acting out Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves using puppets, and since then, the idea of engaging in a totally different world has seemed amazing to me. I understand how much of the real world is a theatrical production itself. Being a millennial, and someone who hopefully wants to hold political office one day, I would say theater helped me get a better understanding of the world and become an observer, someone who can truly present themselves to anyone and everyone.

I have always had a great taste for musicals because I have a bias that musicals are meant to be watched and plays are meant to be read. However, as I grow older and more mature I understand the significance of plays, and now I am quite excited to see any play, regardless of its genre, cast, director, etc. Having read A Raisin in the Sun and watched the movie starring one of my favorite actors, Sidney Poitier, I had great expectations for Harlem Repertory Theatre’s revival of the play, and I definitely was extremely satisfied.

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First, I was very impressed with how the theatrical space was arranged because there were audience seats on stage — something I had never experienced before. I ended up being the only audience member who decided to sit on a chair placed on the side of the stage, with the rest of the audience members facing my way. At first it felt awkward because for all I knew the audience may have assumed I was part of the cast, so I wanted to change my seat. But then I realized how this could lead me to have a totally different perspective than everyone else.

I have a bias that plays are meant to be read.

Once the show began, I was only a couple of feet away from the actors, and I could see everything. When I mean everything, I’m referring to the veins of the actors, to their sweat, facial expressions and body language. It was as if I wasn’t watching a play at all but, in fact, real-life events taking place in a household. This was different from any of my previous theatergoing because I didn’t feel like a spectator but an actual part of the play.

Raisin in the Sun Harlem Rep Mario C Brown
Mario C. Brown as Walter Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play. Photo: Eric Myles.

My favorite experience from this seating arrangement was when the play was getting to one of its most climactic moments — the scene where Walter Younger finds out that Willy Harris has ripped him off, which prompts him to start throwing furniture around his apartment. As Mario C. Brown, who played Walter, began to wreck his home, I had to monitor his movements because at one point the sofa (which was on wheels) came rolling towards my direction, forcing me to push back my chair to avoid it.

In other words, I was feeling every action. Never before have I had to move when I watched a play or musical, so this tactic was very useful in keeping me awake during the play. Interestingly, I also ended up making eye contact with some of the actors; whether accidentally or on purpose I’ll never know.

There were other scenes were I felt I was part of the action. Whenever the actors came near me, the set would go to blackout, and there would be specific lighting on those characters only. When that happened, the lights were focused on just the actors and me. I could feel the lighting pointed straight towards me; it was an experience I have never had before. If I had to be objective, I’m sure some of the audience members did not appreciate that since I most likely shifted their focus a few times involuntarily. By that point I felt like I wasn’t just part of the play but part of the plot!

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Finally, I would add that Raisin in the Sun featured a lively cast whose acting was superb. Having taken acting for four years in high school, I have become quite a critic (hopefully not the rude and mean-spirited critic who ruins lives and the beauty of a play, but one of those critics who truly appreciates work that is remarkable because it is done by the heart). Personally my favorite work was that of Brown and Amanda Hargrave, who played his mother, Lena Younger.

The actors reminded me of my cousin and aunt.

These actors resonated the most within me because they reminded me of my cousin and aunt in Bangladesh, and the type of relationship my family members have; how my cousin is extremely ambitious but my aunt is conservative and how too much change is unhealthy for the family. After my uncle passed away, my aunt had to take care of four children by herself. Two of them were adults and two were teenagers. She stayed in a modest house and made sure she used “every grain of rice.” Even though my adult male cousin wanted to move out and buy a better house through my uncle’s life savings, his mother wanted to make sure it went towards the education of her younger children.

So in many ways, Raisin in the Sun was a personal experience. Not to mention that it was Hargrave who I made eye contact with and Brown who caused the sofa to come rolling to my direction. Both of these moments allowed me to step completely into the world of the Younger family — a memory I will always keep with me.