In an intricate scene, one of the three Lorraine Hansberrys sits at her typewriter while the cast, including the two other Lorraine Hansberrys, stand behind her and act out her cluttered mind during writer’s block. To say this production is complex is an understatement.
“This play is a fast-paced and powerful kaleidoscope of constantly shifting scenes, moods and images recreating the world of Lorraine Hansberry, from her birth in 1930, to her death in 1965,” said assistant director Jessica Jones.
The African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) presents “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: A Portrait of Lorraine Hansberry In Her Own Words” on Feb. 21, 22 and 28, and March 1 and 2. AATAT, similar to Rainbow Theater, is a product of the Cultural Arts and Diversity Center and the hard work of Don Williams and his committed students.
Williams founded the troupe in 1991. He said it was inspired by the advocacy of students who wanted to act in plays they could relate to. These plays are as much a learning experience for those behind the curtain as they are for those in front.
“I go through a real critical search of heart and soul for things that need to be told in this community,” Williams said.
This quarter’s production is about the life and works of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author of “A Raisin in the Sun.” Hansberry’s ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, wrote the play in her honor after a long battle with pancreatic cancer took her life at age 34.
First performed in 1969, the play is distinguished by its layered and experimental structure, with many monologues and abstract scenes, like one in which a young Hansberry is on stage consoling an older version of herself. The play follows Hansberry through three phases of her life, as she both comments on and acts out memories. These phases unravel simultaneously, as the audience sees snapshots of her childhood, teenage years and young adulthood, turning her life into one fluid work of art.
“It is not just some distant play. It gets at a lot of real life issues UCSC faces, such as prejudice and exclusion,” said Brian Jackson, a third-year student acting in his first production.
The structure of the play is a tall order for a cast made up of many first and second time actors, but Don Williams has no doubts about the young troupe.
“This is one of the better crops of students. They have a mind and discipline to put forth and do their best at telling their story,” Williams said. “I get good students all the time, but this year had an amazing growth of students that have that walk, or that swagger, and are able to get involved in telling a story such as this.”
The rehearsal was the first in which they could not call for lines, meaning if they forgot their lines they had to move on however they could — a challenge that did not seem to faze the group. Assistant director Jessica Jones attributes the troupe’s adaptability to their blossoming enthusiasm.
“They bring this exciting, new energy that is fun and open-minded, which allows for everyone to bond and gel together and trust each other,” Jones said.
During the second half of the rehearsal, first-year Justin Sugar took the stage. This was Sugar’s first production, and while he was nervous, he was also a natural, Williams said. His monologue began in a soft, contemplative voice but eventually built into an explosively emotive scene — prompting snaps and cheers as the scene ended.
“He’s got it and he doesn’t even know it,” Williams said.
Fourth-year member of the troupe and one of the three Lorraine Hansberrys, Unique Thomas said acting with conviction is an essential part of the experience, not only for the audience but for the cast.
“As he always says, ‘What comes from the heart, goes to the heart,’” Thomas said, referencing one of Williams’ mantras. “If you love it, you will have fun and people will fill with passion and receive what you are doing.”