By Jueseppi B.
The South Siders in the White House—President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle—took in a Broadway show on Friday, the revival of “Raisin’ in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s story of racial animosity a black family faced when they moved into a white South Side Chicago neighborhood.
In Manhattan, the First Couple went to dinner and then to a play dealing with Chicago’s struggle against racial inequality to cap a week where Obama, the nation’s first African-American president delivered a speech to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the 1964 Civil Right Act and a speech to a New York based civil rights group, the National Action Network.
Joining the president and Mrs. Obama for the night out were another South Sider, White House senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and her friend, Ahmad Rashad.
The play draws from Hansberry’s real life experiences when her father moved the family to 6140 S. Rhodes Ave. during an era when Chicago real estate contracts enforced segregation by banning sales to blacks and Jews through the use of restrictive covenants.
The Hansberry family was met by hostile whites wanting them out of the Rhodes house and uses this painful experience is the center piece of “Raisin in the Sun” which made its Broadway debut in 1959.
(The Rhodes building is now a Chicago literary landmark.)
The revival stars Denzel Washington, Anika Noni Rose, LaTanya Richardson, Bryce Clyde Jenkins, Sean Patrick Thomas and Sophie Okonedo.
Jarrett told me, “We all thought it was terrific. Entire cast was outstanding. An important play that is timeless. Great history lesson for the younger generation.”
By coincidence, another native South Sider–and a friend of Mrs. Obama–was in the audience, Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
“We were friends, in part because we had the Chicago connection. I haven’t seen her a lot since law school, but I’ve run into her a few times, most recently at campaign events. I had the good fortune to be seated in an aisle and Michelle saw me, said “Hey Paul” and gave me a hug. That made my year!
AT THE THEATER
Before the play at the Barrymore Theater started, Butler said “the crowd was beside itself with excitement.
“There was Secret Service all around, and the audience had to go through metal detectors to enter the theater so everyone knew the president was coming but still…to see him and Michelle walk in the room.
“Everyone stood up and didn’t just applaud, they cheered. And kept cheering for almost ten minutes. People would stop applauding and then it would start up again. Broadway theaters are not large amphitheaters, so I think part of it was you felt physically proximate to him. They kept making an announcement, something like “Out of respect for the actors, ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats.”
“…Although another whole round of squeals started when Denzel first came on stage. I have to say the play itself was so powerful, both the writing and the acting, that when it started everyone focused on it. And the presidential party was exceptionally gracious and low key- shaking hands with audience members and they joined in the standing ovation for the actors after the play ended.”
Butler’s family has been in Chicago for generations, a “Chicago classic” story.
“ My mom is a retired public school teacher, my grandfather was a Pullman Porter -his parents were from Mississippi,” Butler said.
“…The play has always been personal for me, growing up in Chicago. I’ve probably seen seven or eight different productions.
“I always remember Martin Luther King saying Chicago was one of the most segregated cities he had ever seen, and how I didn’t know any white people for the first 13 years of my life, until I went to St. Ignatius.
“I could literally go for days and never see one, except on TV. My great grandmother lived in a mainly black senior citizens building in Bridgeport, and walking to the store there could be a terrifying experience.
“So I always felt like I knew the consequences of where the family in “Raisin” were moving to, and how much courage it took – courage just to want a better live for your family! NYC and DC are segregated, but not like Chicago.
“I have a lot of artsy and political friends who would prefer Broadway put on new plays by African-American playwrights and not old dusties like “Raisin,” but when you see it, it feels contemporary, in part because it is so well written, but in part because the issues of inequality and “polite” racial animus are still very much with us.
“The presence of the first African-American president was at once inspiring and sobering. Inspiring because Walter Lee was a big dreamer, but he probably would never have dreamed of a Black president, just a couple of generations down the road.
“I remember my mom, who was a schoolteacher, would sometimes have to go to a credit union near Cicero, which was famously exclusionary and racist. I would wait in the car and be scared to death. So the presence of a Black president, who came into his own in Chicago, was richly satisfying.
“It makes me feel vindicated, somehow. I kind of felt like his presence rebuked the white guy in the play from the Clyborne Park Improvement Association and the white teenagers who would try to intimidate me in Bridgeport. But Obama’s presence was also sobering because even with a Black president, we are nowhere near post-racial. Nowhere near. That’s the focus of a lot of my scholarship. That’s why the play doesn’t feel dated.”
TO KNOW MORE ABOUT LORRAINE HANSBERRY
Tickets to watch Denzel Washington on Broadway in “A Raisin in the Sun” are hard to come by, but one man managed it — President Barack Obama.
The only recognition from the cast of their special guests was when Washington tipped his cap in their direction at the curtain call, which was already a standing ovation. The president and his wife went backstage to greet the actors at intermission.
“I’m so glad. I’m so happy that he came to see the show,” said 13-year-old Bryce Clyde Jenkins, who is making his Broadway debut. “It means so much to me that the president took time out from whatever he was doing to come see a show like ours.”
The Obamas took their orchestra section seats to huge applause that was repeated when they left, shaking hands as they went up and down the aisle. The president wore a suit and the first lady wore a sparkly black top and a chic black leather jacket.
There was a 20-minute delay in the beginning of the show when an alarm flooded the theater with a piercing sound. A huge ovation greeted its end. Though asked to put away cellphones, virtually every audience-member whipped them out to take flash shots of the Obamas, lighting up the darkened theater.
Lorraine Hansberry’s play, set in 1950s Chicago, centers on a struggling working-class black family anxiously awaiting a $10,000 insurance check and the ensuing squabbles over how to spend it. It may touch a chord with Obama, who calls Chicago home and who has a parent from Africa, a strong theme in the play.
Stephen McKinley Henderson, who only appears in the second act, shook the president’s hand at intermission and was floored by the power of the moment. Michelle Obama, who clearly knew the play, recognized Henderson’s character and asked him if he’d be on stage soon, then gave him a hug. “I’ll never be the same!” Henderson said.
The Obamas have been big boosters of Broadway during his presidency. Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia have attended performances of “Memphis,” ”Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” ”Sister Act,” ”The Trip to Bountiful,” ”Motown the Musical” and “The Addams Family.” And the first couple saw “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” during a date night in 2009. Michelle Obama and six girlfriends also saw “Fela!” in 2010.