Hansberry's sun shines again

David Lan revives the first play by a black woman to be shown on Broadway

Charlotte Cripps
Tuesday 08 February 2005 01:00

David Lan, the artistic director of the Young Vic Theatre, is a dab hand at dusting off neglected classics from the shelf and giving them a new lease of life. The hits of the former anthropologist and writer-in-residence at the Royal Court include Doctor Faustus with Jude Law in 2002 and a translation of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Trevor Nunn at the National in 2000.

It was Lan's bright idea to revive David Rudkin's Afore Night Come, directed by Rufus Norris - of Festen acclaim - in 2001, and more recently Thornton Wilder's comedy The Skin of our Teeth, which Lan directed last year. "Despite it being a very famous play, it hadn't been seen since in London for 45 years," he says.

Lan is also behind the musical Simply Heavenly, showing at Trafalgar Studios. "I found an old L of the show," he says, "and then the text in a second-hand bookshop - and I thought, 'Am I crazy, or why isn't somebody doing this in London?'"

Lan is now directing the revival of A Raisin in the Sun as part of the Young Vic's Walkabout season. It was staged at the theatre in 2001 but has not otherwise been seen in London for 20 years.

Lorraine Hansberry wrote the play - based on her own life and about the travails of a successful African-American family who want to move into an all-white area of Chicago - when she was 28. In 1959, Hansberry became the first black woman to have a play on Broadway, when Raisin opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and went on to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best play. Sidney Poitier played the role of Walter Lee Younger, and reprised the part for the film version of 1961. Hansberry's success meant a great deal to black America; Nina Simone's "To be Young, Gifted and Black" was inspired by Hansberry's play of that name, and Martin Luther King said she would be an inspiration to generations yet unborn.

"There is something about this play that demanded I do it," says Lan, who was born in Cape Town and moved to London in 1972. "There was no resisting it." Why does he feel a close bond to the story of a family stuck in a ghastly small apartment, whose aspirations to move into an all-white area are jeopardised when the son, Walter Lee, loses money investing in a liquor store? "I came from a Jewish family," he says. "My grandparents came from Lithuania to South Africa in the 1920s. We also lived in a tiny apartment. There are enormous connections between blacks and Jews in history."

Returning to his role as Walter Lee Younger is Lennie James, who was most recently seen in Fallout at the Royal Court. He leads a cast that includes the American actress Novella Nelson - who will, again, play his mother, Lena.

Lan is possessive about the play. "I always feel nervous about returning to a play," he says. "Will it be as fresh as the first time? But since my revival, I get upset when it's performed elsewhere - it was staged on Broadway in 2004. It is very much my play," he adds, only half joking.

'A Raisin in the Sun', Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (020-7928 6363; www.youngvic.org) 18 Feb to 26 March; then touring

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