By Artistic Director, Bruce Miller
In 1980, Theatre IV (one of the two nonprofit companies that merged in 2012 to form Virginia Repertory Theatre) produced its first adult audience season. We were in the second half of our fifth year of operations, and we decided that if we were going to work towards our goal of becoming a regional theatre of national standing, we had better get started. And so we rented the Westover movie theatre on Forest Hill Avenue (about 500 seats, now known as New Canaan Baptist Church), built a wooden stage in front of the movie screen, equipped the stage with black fabric “legs” and some very basic stage lighting, and produced a three show season consisting of The Diary of Anne Frank, A Raisin in the Sun, and The Philadelphia Story—perhaps a little too predictably something for everyone.
The season was a success, and our aspirations soared. The following year we rented the recently closed Loew’s movie theatre in downtown Richmond (about 1,800 seats, now known as Carpenter Theatre at CenterStage). We produced a three-show season consisting of West Side Story, Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians and Born Yesterday. This second season also was a success, and we were on our way. The following year we would rent the Empire Theatre (about 600 seats, now known as the November Theatre), and purchase the same building four years later in 1986.
Prior to that first season in 1980, we had produced two adult audience productions in our first three months of operation: Where’s Charley? and The Glass Menagerie. Both of those shows succeeded artistically, but financially they were flops. We learned early on that when we produced plays for children and families, we sold enough tickets to cover our expenses. And so from Oct of 1975 until January of 1980, we focused strictly on children’s theatre, both mainstage and touring, and built our financial foundation before returning to plays for adult audiences in the spring of ’80.
Our production of A Raisin in the Sun was co-produced with Virginia Union University, and directed by Amini Johari, the director of VUU’s theatre program. Raisin starred Kweli Leapart and Tony Cosby, two wonderful actors with whom we’d have long and productive relationships. Amini is now known as Johari Amini. She is an acclaimed educator and director in Maryland; a recent biography can be found here.
A Raisin in the Sun was our first foray into African American theatre, and Amini, Kweli and Tony were very gracious and forgiving teachers. Phil Whiteway, Managing Director then and now, played Karl Lindner, the only white character in the show. Lindner seems like a nice enough man at first. He says he represents a kind of “welcoming committee” from Clybourne Park, the predominantly white neighborhood where the black family in Raisin, the Youngers, is planning to move. Lindner implies that if people of different races would just sit down and talk to each other, a lot of problems could be resolved.
Of course, in Raisin, Lindner has no desire to “welcome” the Youngers at all. His idea of resolving the “problem” of a black family moving into the neighborhood is to try to bribe the family into selling their new home back to the white neighborhood association.
This week, Cadence Theatre, in partnership with Virginia Rep, will be opening Clybourne Park, a brilliant new play by Bruce Norris, in our Theatre Gym studio space (81 seats, located in Virginia Rep Center next door to the November). Clybourne Park was written in 2010 in response to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic Raisin in the Sun. The play was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play.
Act I of Clybourne Park takes place in 1959, during the same time period as A Raisin in the Sun. The character of Karl Lindner appears in Clybourne, only this time he is trying to convince his white neighbors not to sell their home to the black Youngers. As we know from Raisin, his attempt is doomed to failure.
Act II of Clybourne takes place in the same house 50 years later. During that half century, Clybourne Park has become an all-black neighborhood, and the issue now is not integration but gentrification. A white couple seeking to buy and replace the house are being forced to negotiate local housing regulations with a black couple representing a neighborhood association. The discussion of housing codes soon degenerates into one of racial issues, and we quickly realize that everything has changed and nothing has changed.
Clybourne Park is directed by Keri Wormald (August: Osage County) and features an outstanding cast including David Bridgewater, Andrew Firda, McLean Jesse, Katie McCall, Thomas Nowlin, Steve Perigard and Tyra Robinson. Scenic Design is by Phil Hayes, Lighting Design by Andrew Bonniwell, Costume Design by Lynn West, Props by Sarah Stepahin, Scenic Painting by Terrie Powers, Dialect Coaching by Janet Rodgers and Set Dressing by Irene Ziegler.
Please join us for this yet another great contemporary play from the Cadence / Virginia Rep partnership.