Q&A with Director Derek Charles Livingston on A Raisin in the Sun
Derek Charles Livingston is the Interim Artistic Director and Director of New Play Development at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. This season, however, he has also taken on the role of directing Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.
“I am a director because I love the theater and love helping to shape moments, bringing stories to life, and I enjoy working with actors and finding out what makes a play speak to us,” Livingston said. “I do so in a style that at times leans into theatricality as a way of telling, not reality, but truth. I like to be a storyteller and a truth teller.”
Last season, Livingston portrayed Thurgood Marshall in the Festival’s production of Thurgood. He has also served as the Managing Artistic Director at Celebration Theatre and the Program Manager at Playwrights Project. Livingston received the New Hampshire Drama Award for Lead Actor in Driving Miss Daisy.
Livingston received a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University and Master of Fine Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Film and Television.
The Festival: As playgoers, why should people come see this play?
Livingston: People should come see this play because it is a really terrific piece of writing that’s an American classic. Speaking a bit immodestly, this production has really terrific performances that have moved the audiences tremendously in the weeks that it has been in our stages. People walk away in tears, and I have had a number of people tell me how impactful the play is to them. Raisin at the Utah Shakespeare Festival is indeed something that is proving to be a moving theatrical experience. That is what we do here.
The Festival: What should we watch for in this play that would help us enjoy/understand it better?
Livingston: I think if people want to have a richer understanding going into the play they should look up the Supreme Court case Hansberry v Lee because it provides an insight into the playwright’s inspiration. What I appreciate about the play is that [playwright] Lorraine Hansberry takes an experience––neighborhood integration––and makes it so relatable and personal through this one family, the Youngers. Audiences should also pay attention to the moments of love and triumph in this production. It was something that was very important for me as a director to represent the idea of love within this family and to celebrate black joy.
The Festival: Are there any special “easter eggs” you have implemented into the play as a director?
Livingston: There are some fun things for people to understand about what they are seeing on the set itself. Our set designer has relatives from working class Chicago, so there are elements on the set that come directly from his understanding and his memory of visiting his grandparents in the Chicago area, particularly the pipe stove in the kitchen and the doilies on the sofa and the chair. I also have a friend who had an apartment in New York in the 80’s that shared a bathroom in the hallway to which everyone had their own key to the shared bathroom, so that was something that was happening thirty years after the play that you are seeing.
The Festival: What statement/realization/feeling do you hope audience members leave with after seeing the play?
Livingston: I hope that people walk away from this play really appreciating the fine dramatic writing…the dialogue, and the structure of the play itself. There is a reason that it is an American classic, it is taught in schools, and has been revived on Broadway three times. And in the characters of Walter Lee Younger and Lena Younger, Lorraine Hansberry has given us characters that stand alongside Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman or Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
I also want audience members to walk away appreciating the Younger family itself and identifying the similar values in their own families. I have been saying for well over a year that there is much that I think Utah Shakespeare Festival patrons share with the Raisin family: a family led by a person of faith; that works hard; that values life; that lives multigenerational; and that sticks together.
The Festival: How long have you been directing plays? Why are you a director?
Livingston: I have been directing plays since I was in college. I had an interesting experience. Paula Vogel, who is a well known playwright and playwright instructor, taught playwriting at my college, and she had asked me to direct a play written by another undergraduate who went on to have a very successful career. That undergraduate, Rachel Shenkin, now teaches playwriting at Yale Drama School. Rachel also won a Tony Award for writing the musical The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee. Early on, I really enjoyed the aspect of looking at a play from the outside as director and shaping it, making decisions about how the picture will look, what the rhythms of the play would be, and illuminating and highlighting certain lines.
The Festival: What challenges came with directing this play?
Livingston: Because the play has such emotional weight, with highs and lows and such an emotional journey for Walter Lee Younger, the work to fully represent the scope of Lorraine Hansberry’s genius was compressed and intense. There are also some other interesting challenges. The play takes place in 1954, so every now and then we would run across some information that someone who is younger (no pun intended) in our cast didn’t know. One funny rehearsal moment was explaining to someone how a record player works, or the time it takes to use a dial phone.
There were more serious aspects too, such as reminding people just what a dangerous decision Lena Younger had made in deciding to move a black family into a white neighborhood in 1954. The other challenges were sometimes the language; the patois that Lorraine Hansberry writes is very particular to a Southern and Midwestern experience, and many of our actors are not from those areas. Marrying those patterns to the poetic way in which Lorraine Hansberry writes is something on which we spent time in during the rehearsal process.
The Festival: Why were you excited to direct this play?
Livingston: I’ve known about this play my entire life, mostly because of the movie version with Sidney Poitier as well as in part of its time on Broadway. There was never a time that I did not know about an A Raisin in the Sun. I had read it in high school and I have seen two of the filmed versions of it. I also recognize the impact and weight of it as a piece of American drama.
But also, there are some of the things that I very much identify with. I am the grandson and great grandson of domestic workers, and two of the characters are domestic workers. I came from a family in which two generations ago home ownership did not happen for my family, and the next generation, on my matrilineal side, three of those four children were homeowners. When that generation had passed away, they were able to pass down wealth in a way that had not happened prior to that. In the last few years the topic of home ownership and the ability to pass down wealth and how that was denied to a large section of the African American community due to things like redlining and restrictive covenants has reached greater awareness.
On that level I really tap into what Lena Younger is doing by trying to provide a house for her family. What is beautiful about what happens in this play is that she is not doing it for any sociological reason or political reason. For her, it is about her trying to provide something for her family with money from her late husband’s life insurance policy. Literally, giving his life is able to increase the wealth of the next generation. Improving the lot for the next generation is part of the American story, but is particularized in the African American community in this play. That is very personal to me. The chance to move through that with this amazing cast of actors, many who have had this same experience and dynamic in their families, was not only theatrically rewarding but personally rewarding for all of us.
To purchase tickets to A Raisin in the Sun this season, visit bard.org or call 800-PLAYTIX to purchase tickets.