May 19, 2004

Working Elsewhere

by Cecilia Woloch

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Poems: "Waking Elsewhere," by Cecilia Woloch, from Late. Boa Editions, Ltd. Reprinted with permission.

Waking Elsewhere

I woke up dreaming my mother's garden--
fields in autumn, green turning gold,
grasses scythed down in the late, dark sun;
and here will be corn, she was saying, tomatoes,
flowers I never knew she loved.

I woke to a child climbing into my bed
--four-year-old girl of my sister's son--
hair like silk and the color of wheat
falling into her eyes, begging me to get up.

And in my mother's kitchen the strong light smelled of coffee
and autumn, in fact. In fact, my mother,
who hasn't gardened in twenty years, was taking a bath.
I heard her splashing through the walls. It was October;
the child came forward, one fresh egg cupped in her palm.

I woke up dreaming the harrowed fields,
sharp with stubble, my mother's lands.
She was already preparing for spring; she was already
stepping naked from the bath, away from grief--

a widow with work to do, weeds in the yard,
and the child calling softly to me, come on, come on, come on.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of director and screenwriter Nora Ephron, born in New York City (1941). She started out as a journalist, writing for newspapers and magazines like the New York Post and Esquire. But in 1978 she turned to screenwriting, and since then she's written and directed nineteen movies, including Silkwood (1983), When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993).

It's the birthday of Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska (1925). He became a militant Black Muslim in the early fifties, rejecting the message of nonviolence and desegregation endorsed by other black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. The year before he was assassinated he relaxed his stance on black separatism, and he published his Autobiography in 1964.

It's the birthday of American playwright Lorraine Hansberry, born in Chicago, Illinois (1930). She's best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), about an African-American family living on the South Side of Chicago.

She grew up in a middle-class family in Chicago at a time when the neighborhoods were still racially segregated by law. When she was eight years old, her father, who was a real-estate broker, had a friend of his from work buy a house for him in a white neighborhood. A few weeks after the family moved in, they were attacked by an angry mob. Lorraine just missed being hit by a brick thrown through her bedroom window. Her father took the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, and his victory there in 1959 paved the way for racial desegregation in cities across the country.

It was that experience that gave Hansberry the idea for A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry told her husband that she wanted to write a social drama about blacks in America that was also a work of art. She was tired of seeing blacks portrayed as cardboard characters with cute dialect bits—and so she wrote a play is about the Younger family, who live in a cramped house on the South Side of Chicago. When they receive a 10,000-dollar life insurance check, they have to decide whether or not to move into a larger house in an all-white suburb. The title of the play was taken from a Langston Hughes poem called "A Dream Deferred."

A Raisin in the Sun was Hansberry's first play; she wrote it when she was twenty-eight years old, and she had no idea how to go about getting it produced. One night, she read the first part of the play to a group of friends that included the music publisher Philip Rose. Rose called Hansberry the next morning and volunteered to produce the play, even though he had never produced a play in his life. He happened to be friends with Sidney Poitier, so he called him up, and Poitier arranged for the black director Lloyd Richards to take on the project.

It took more than a year to raise the money necessary to produce it. Hansberry later said, "It was the conventional wisdom that nobody was going to pay . . . to see a bunch of negroes emoting." They weren't able to rent a theater in New York, so they took the show on the road, and wherever it went it drew huge audiences.

Finally, in March of 1959, it opened on Broadway, with a cast that included Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, and Louis Gossett. A preview audience gave it a lukewarm response and Hansberry wasn't expecting it to do very well, but the opening-night audience loved it, and it went on to play for more than five hundred performances over two years. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best American play of 1959, a year in which Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, and William Faulkner each had a play on Broadway.

A Raisin in the Sun was the first Broadway play to be written by a black woman. For most members of the audience, it was the first time they had seen the life of a regular black family portrayed on stage or in film. For blacks, it opened the door for actors and directors to produce plays on Broadway. Over the next six years, there were five Broadway productions by black playwrights using mostly black casts. The play inspired a new generation of black playwrights that included August Wilson and Ntozake Shange, and it helped to spawn several black theater troupes in the 1960s and '70s. In 1961 it was made into a movie, with most of the original cast; in 1973 it was made into a Tony award-winning musical; and in 1989 it was produced for television. It's taught in many schools and performed regularly in regional theaters, and a revival of the play starring Sean "P. Diddy" Combs is playing on Broadway this spring.

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