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LI theater celebrates 'A Raisin in the Sun' at 60

Chauncy Thomas and Erin Margaret Pettigrew star in

Chauncy Thomas and Erin Margaret Pettigrew star in "A Raisin in the Sun" at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Credit: Michael Heller

“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore and then run?” So wondered Langston Hughes in his 1951 poem “Harlem,” inspiring at least one young woman to search for an answer.

Lorraine Hansberry set out to write a play exploring the struggles of an African-American family from the south side of Chicago. Loosely based on her family’s Supreme Court fight against a lawsuit intent on pushing them out of an all-white neighborhood, Hansberry’s history-making drama “A Raisin in the Sun” became the first Broadway production of a work by a black female playwright.

To mark the 60th anniversary of the play's premiere, Bay Street Theater is presenting "Raisin" from Nov. 14 through Dec. 1. The show also opens the 11th season of the Sag Harbor venue’s “Literature Live!” series, an annual program linked to the Arts-in-Education initiative providing access to theater for local student and public audiences.

“One of the great ways to learn about history is to lift it off the page,” says director Lydia Fort. “The theater makes for a unique situation, allowing you to share the space with the performers so it feels less abstract, more relatable.”

Fort notes that connection may be even stronger today than when the play and its 1961 film version debuted, largely because of how the actors portray its iconic characters. “Before, they felt more like archetypes, depicted with broader strokes such as good and bad. Now they embody a lot more gray — messy details and contradictions.”

According to Fort, this was particularly apparent when casting Ruth, the traditionally soft-spoken wife of Walter Lee Younger, who wants to invest his late father's insurance payout in a liquor store rather than in a new home as his mother, Lena, desires. “Everyone who auditioned brought a more forceful energy, more assertiveness to the role,” Fort reports. “Walter doesn’t get to brush Ruth off. There is more of a partnership.”

While the story revolves around racial tensions, other conflicts and complexities emerge. “Hansberry is speaking to us as a collective,” Fort says, “one shaped in the play by multiple layers and forces — our legacies and systems, how we work in families and communities.”

“So many of the themes resonate into the present,” says Chauncy Thomas, who plays Walter, a role made famous by Sidney Poitier on screen and by Denzel Washington in the 2014 Broadway revival. Hampton Bays-based Joe Pallister, who plays Karl Lindner, the bigoted representative of the new neighborhood’s "welcoming committee," agrees. “Unfortunately, it feels like now more than ever, we need this story,” he says.

“It’s an opportunity to see how far we’ve come and what we have yet to do,” adds Fort. Assessing our progress, she defers to Joseph Asagai, a suitor of Walter’s sister, Beneatha.

“Things will happen, slowly and swiftly,” the character observes. “At times it will seem that nothing changes at all … and then again … the sudden dramatic events which make history leap into the future. And then quiet again.”

WHAT “A Raisin in the Sun”

WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, through Dec. 1, Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay St., Sag Harbor

INFO $15-$55; 631-725-9500,

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