SIKESTON -- When the cast of "Raisin in the Sun" takes the stage at the Albritton-Mayer Cultural Center later this week, they will be breaking many barriers.
The play, written by Lorraine Hansberry and set in the 1950s, is the first purely dramatic play at Albritton-Mayer since its opening in 2002, noted Mike Marsh, a cast member as well as president of the Sikeston Little Theater's Board of Directors. Not only that, it's the Little Theater's first primarily black ensemble.
"Michael Harris and I have been talking about doing something like this for about six or seven years now," said Barbara Shriver, director of the play, admitting it's also one of her favorites. Harris is co-director. "And we decided this would be a good time to start and everything came together right for this time."
Harris added having a play with a mostly black cast "had really been untapped in Sikeston."
"A Raisin in the Sun" addresses racial tension and minority's struggle for a better life. "It takes us back in time a little and shows us some of the struggles African Americans had in the '50s," said Shriver. The play centers around the Younger family, of which a mother, her daughter and son, as well as daughter-in-law and grandson live in a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago. The death of the father leaves the family with insurance money -- and questions of how to use it.
"They are trying to decide what to do with their money and consider perhaps moving, to an all-white neighborhood," said Marsh.
Watching the play is a good lesson on what segregation was like in the 1950s, said Marsh.
"I really think that you'll see some of the younger people in the audience turn to the older people and ask 'Was it ever really like that?'" he said. Questions such as that have already come up within the cast. And there has been a lot of sharing memories. "As an older person who remembers segregation, it's exciting to me, and I'm very pleased to see that we're having to explain this to the younger people," said Marsh, who was in fifth grade when the Sikeston schools integrated. "This is a reminder of the way things were, and it's important to remember how things were, so we don't make the same mistakes."
However, Shriver pointed out, a lot of the same issues are still problems now. She said she hopes the production will make people aware of that. "Hopefully, it will bring back to the foreground how those subtle things are done, to keep people out because of the color of their skin and nothing more," she said. "Maybe it will open some people's eyes -- those who don't realize what is going on or are in denial." Harris pointed out the play addresses housing, economic and employment issues that still exist. "Even if it's just presented (in the play), then people will have it in the back of their minds next time it comes to hiring someone or a housing issue," he said. "People will be a little bit more sensitive to other groups in society and take others' feelings into consideration."
Those involved said there is some "colorful" language in the play. "But it's not really anything you wouldn't hear on television," said Marsh. Shriver said the cast discussed changing some of the dialogue to "soften it a bit." But, in the end, all agreed to keep the language intact.
Because of that, the play may not be appropriate for small children. However, Harris encouraged high school students to attend, since the production falls during spring break.
"Oftentimes, they are so busy, they don't have the time to stop and take part in these cultural things," said Harris.
Shriver said she thinks the play production shows how the Little Theater is expanding. Thus far, the only plays at Albritton-Mayer have been comedies or musicals.
"It's really good to bring something like this," she said. "Musicals are fun, but with these (dramatic plays) you can go away and have some food for thought."
Harris agreed: "I think this is a very proactive direction that the little theatre is gong into."
He said during the production, he's learned there is a lot of black talent in the community. "Hopefully the minority community will start participating more in the community theater," he said. "I think the ball is rolling now."
Marsh said there are more similar plays in store. "We feel like we have gotten to the point now that we can start to branch out and do different types of plays, especially plays that are excellent but not quite as well-known," he said. In May, the theater will present "To Gillian on her 37th Birthday," he said. Another includes Shakespeare plays, which have never been done.