AMERICAN THEATER | The Canon, Reloaded: 3 Playwrights Respond to 20th-Century Classics

Top left: Jordan Slattery, Miranda Rizzolo, and Deidre Staples in “John Proctor Is the Villain” at the Studio Theatre. (Photo by Margot Schulman). Bottom left: Kate Fry and Amanda Drinkall in “Wife of a Salesman” at Writers Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow). Right: a reading of “Younger” at True Colors Theatre.

In an era when movie theaters are dominated by the endless permutations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the notion of a Lorraine Hansberry Multiverse seems like either a highbrow parody or copyright quagmire. Yet playwrights seem inexorably drawn back to her from her seminal A Raisin in the Sunand the results have been works that expand on the story of the Younger family and their home from a variety of angles: Bruce Norris’s Clybourne ParkKwame Kwei-Armah’s Beneatha’s PlaceKelundra Smith’s youngerRobert O’Hara’s The Etiquette of Surveillance.

A similar kind of expansion and exploration of canonical work seems to spring up around the works of Arthur Miller, yielding both plays which extrapolate new stories rooted in the original, such as Eleanor Burgess’s Wife of a Salesmanor which seek to reframe Miller by imagining present-day people exploring his plays, as characters do with The Crucible in both Kimberly Belflower’s John Proctor Is the Villain and Sheri Wilner’s Kingdom City.

There is not universally agreed upon term for plays that take off from prior works, which date back at least to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and more recently saw the unexpected return of Nora Helmer in Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2. riffs? homage? Responses? Indications? Whatever the nomenclature, there’s an undeniable appeal for playwrights to engage in conversation with, even dispute, earlier works.

Kimberly Belflower.

Belflower, whose John Proctor is now having its premiere at the Studio Theater in Washington, DC, said that her look at how present-day students respond to reading The Crucible had its genesis in the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017 and her simultaneous reading of Stacy Schiff’s new history of the infamous colonial trials, The Witches: Salem 1692.

“I’m from Southern Appalachia, in North Georgia,” Belfower explained, “and was thinking a lot about what it is to come of age in a rural place, what it is to come of age in the church, and to be given a series of rules for your life and expectations for what things are supposed to look like. Really just thinking about the way that we’re taught canonical literature as one of those systems of power—who gets to be in the canon and who doesn’t.”

Kelundra Smith recalled reading and directing a production of Raisin in high school, and wondering at the time “what the original dream was that got deferred. I don’t know what it was in my teenage mind that I knew that some other dreams had had to be deferred in order for this one to be the one that they’re anchoring on.”

That question led Smith to imagine Lena Younger’s initial move to Chicago and her life there with her husband, which predates the action of Raisin. This also allowed Smith to address an aspect of Black life not often portrayed in dramatic works, one which echoes across decades.

“We don’t get a lot of Great Migration stories—we get a lot of Great Depression stories,” said Smith. “People forget that when it comes to America’s history, Black people are often dealing with two crises at a time, not just one. We’ve seen this with the pandemic: We have a racial reckoning and we have COVID-19. We can talk about that for every decade in American history. In the 1930s, Black people were dealing with the Great Migration and the Great Depression. In the 1940s, Black people are dealing with World War II and trying to get anti-lynching legislation passed. In the 1950s, Black people are dealing with interstates and the development of the suburbs moving through their communities and the Korean War. In the 1960s, Black people are dealing with the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.”

On a more personal note, she found a version of dream deferment in her own family story. While she was in high school, her mother wanted to go back to school to get her Ph.D. and become a college professor, but with Smith getting ready to go to college, her father worried about the cost.

“He was like, ‘We have too much going on.’ She enrolled anyway and ended up dropping out. A decade later though, she did end up becoming a professor. I thought: ‘I’ve seen my mother defer her dreams of her. I know what this looks like.’ As I got older, thinking about the different ways in which I kind of avoided being a writer for a long time made me think about the way I deferred my own dreams.”

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