Tazewell Thompson Directs Arena's 'Raisin in the Sun'
Tazewell Thompson is back in Washington.
That may not sound as momentous as it might be for Thompson, the multitasking, much-gifted playwright-director who has spent a good deal of his artistic and professional life in D.C. Nevertheless, very trip back is a kind of home coming for him, a return to something in his core.
Especially this time.
Thompson is directing the Arena Stage production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” the classic play of a striving, struggling, vividly portrayed African American family living in Chicago in the 1950s, which runs through May 7. “Raisin” is his 19th production at Arena since 1988.
“It is the play when it comes to a landmark moment for African Americans in the theater,” Thompson said during a telephone interview. “It was the first drama by an African American woman on Broadway, it focuses on an ordinary, struggling black family living on Chicago South Side, trying for a better life, moving forward.
“It’s a play that’s fully formed as theater. It’s poetic, epic, original. Nobody had encountered anything like this before. And it has stood the test of time — that it has, solidly, every time out. It’s particular, but everybody recognizes themselves in it. It contains the world."
For Thompson and, one suspects, for many African American playwrights and artists, the play, rich in languages, hyperdramatic and emotional, is a kind of homecoming, to begin with. “It’s a great story, as all great drama has to be,” he said.
In other ways, too, this project is resonant for Thompson, because “I’ve always wanted to do it,” he said, as has Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage.
“I have wanted to produce 'A Raisin in the Sun' at Arena for years," Smith noted. "In Washington, with a new administration, it is our job as artists to remind everyone of the humanity around us. 'A Raisin in the Sun' is the story of a brave family who can see a future that is better than their present. I know that Tazewell and his talented cast will bring these characters to life in a truly wonderful way.”
The play continues to be revived. Denzel Washington starred in a recent production. Sidney Poitier starred in the original 1959 Broadway production and repeated his role in the film version.
Washington, and more specifically Arena, represent all sorts of sounds of home to Thompson. He spent a significant part of his career and life at Arena Stage, beginning in 1988, and comes back time and time again.
“It was my first great opportunity, and I had the great experience of working as an assistant director under Zelda Fichandler. She was the most remarkable person you could possibly work with. She was my mentor. She was a legend.”
At the celebration of Fichandler’s life at Arena, after her death last year, Thompson talked about the sometimes tumultuous but ultimately inspirational relationship he had with Fichandler. “I was restless at one point, and feisty and full of myself, and I told her I was tired of working at the Arena Stage plantation," he said.
“Yes, I said that. She cursed me in several different languages, including Yiddish, not to mention Shakespearean curses and some from Chaucer.”
At Arena, Thompson directed 18 plays, amassing an impressive repertoire of works including “The Glass Menagerie,” “M. Butterfly,” Brecht’s difficult and soaring “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” and August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Fences” (With Yaphett Kotto). “This is my 19th,” he said. “That’s amazing, when you think about it.”
Thompson made his Broadway debut with his direction of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined.”
At Arena, in addition to directing, he also wrote “Mary T. and Lizzy K,” about the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her African American seamstress and friend Lizzy K. The play was produced at Arena about the time the film “Lincoln” was making a big splash, and a lot of Lincoln material found its way to the stage. Thompson’s play stood out for its originality and intimate power.
Thompson’s reach isn’t limited to drama and the theater. He’s directed memorable productions of operas, including “Lost in the Stars,” “Porgy and Bess” and “Appomattox” for the Washington National Opera.
“I’ve always found that there’s a natural connection between straight plays and opera, between music and drama.,” he said.
Thompson's direction of “Lost in the Stars” and “Appomattox” were examples of how to stage non-traditional, contemporary works. They contained worlds, both dramatically and musically, and required, especially with the case of “Lost in the Stars,” Kurt Weill’s musical work about the perils and cost of Apartheid in South Africa, an ability to use restraint as well as high drama.
In person and in conversation, Thompson is one of those persons who’s a natural enthusiasm with an ability to surprise. He’s a dramatic man to whom poetry comes easily.
For him, “Raisin” is a natural theater piece, like an opera, in some ways. “Look at it and listen to it," he said. "It has withstood the test of time. There’s a great sense of poetry in it. It plays like a Greek tragedy, like something Euripides would have done. It has these great speeches and monologues that are like arias.”