Five minutes ago, this blog post was going to be a long, whining discussion about how stuck I am, how afraid I am, how empty and tired I am from several months of working on two all-consuming projects that were met with a general conclusion that my ideas are ill-conceived, my dialogue dopey, and my future a wasteland of misdirected dreams.
Luckily, I’ve changed my mind. Who wants to read that?
I changed my mind because I remembered that I recently saw a production of A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.
Let me say this. I’ve been to a lot of theater lately. For the most part, I’ve remained unmoved. I’ve been entertained. I’ve been bored. But for the most part, I’ve been unmoved. I leave having felt nothing. I could attribute this to seeing too much theater, or being a cold hearted person, or being distracted. But I won’t.
A Raisin in the Sun moved me.
I’m not speaking directly about the production I saw, though it was well done. I’m talking about the play itself, the words, and the playwright herself.
Lorraine Hansberry died at the age of 34 after a long battle with cancer. A Raisin in the Sun was produced when she was only 29, making her the first African American female playwright to be produced on Broadway. She wrote with passion, with elegance, with acute sensitivity. She was so young. She had so much more to do.
I’ll admit, I’ve cried over her. A couple times while writing this even. Perhaps because I feel myself nearing the age when she died, seeing my mediocre accomplishments shrink in the shade of her own, and wondering what she could have done if she had never gotten sick. A brilliant career cut short for no reason. And mine? Well, mine continues on. What will I achieve by the time I’m 29?
So perhaps I’m crying for myself. But honestly – whenever we cry, we cry mostly for ourselves, don’t we? Really think about it and be truthful.
You cry for you.
I will admit that part of this feeling I have for her is rooted in the fact that she was indeed young (like me) and a woman (like me). There has been a lot of talk recently not only in LA Theatre but nationally about women playwrights being critically underrepresented in American Theatre. Locally, the LA Female Playwrights Initiative did a study about how many female playwrights are produced vs. male playwrights. The study found that less than 20% of the plays produced or presented in workshops or readings for a ten-year period (2000-2009) were written by women. Nationally, this number is closer to 17%.
On top of that, last year’s Ovation Awards and the LA Weekly Awards had no nominations of women playwrights in the Playwriting categories.
I am reminded of a quote from Clare Boothe Luce, another playwright:
Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, “She doesn’t have what it takes”; They will say, “Women don’t have what it takes.”
In all honesty, I feel that is still true today.
I grew up in a household that was, and still is, endlessly supportive; I have a mother who is smart, a strong capable leader, tireless and dedicated – and damn good at what she does. Not once did I ever think that perhaps I would need to work that much harder, no matter what career path I chose, simply because I’m a woman. At least, not until I became an adult. My mom made it look easy.
The first moment I remember even feeling an inkling of this was at the tail end of high school. My high school class of 900 and something had two valedictorians and three salutatorians – and I was the only girl in the group. Before graduation, we were all summoned to the principal’s office to talk about what colleges we were going to and what we intended on studying – and as I sat there and listened, I had this overwhelming sensation that no matter what I did, I would have to work harder and achieve double what the guys in the room did to ever be realistically placed on the same level as them.
I wonder sometimes, just a simple curiosity, how my last play would have been received by critics or audiences if it were listed as being written by a man. Would it have been an imperfect but exciting introduction of a new playwright to the world instead of an imperfect, self-indulging slop? Maybe there would be no difference. Maybe there would.
In any case, I feel like any failure of mine, any harsh criticism, anything that is not perfect out of the gate, is somehow a reflection on my gender as a whole rather than just me as a person. And I don’t think I’m the only one.
And I think of Lorraine Hansberry. How much she achieved as both an African American and a woman in so little time and in a very different era. She makes me want to work harder than ever before, writing from the heart, to become a female playwright that honors her memory.
And I had to know where the title A Raisin in the Sun came from. Not surprisingly, from a poem – poetry being the one art form I keep returning to for constant inspiration and rejuvenation of the soul:
“A Dream Deferred” – by Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I’m ready to explode. Not for deferring a dream, but for diving into it head-on.