Starletta DuPois may be the only actress ever to have played all three female roles in the classic play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” by Lorraine Hansberry.
Then called “a Negro play,” it was the first play by an African American produced on Broadway. Staged in 1959, it starred Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Lou Gossett, Glynn Turman, Diana Sands and was directed by Lloyd Richards.
On Friday, July 22, at Santa Monica’s Ruskin Group Theatre, DuPois stars as Lena (Mama) Younger, the matriarch of the family consisting of daughter and college student Beneatha, Walter Lee, the son (a chauffeur), his wife Ruth, and their son Travis.
The play’s title was inspired by the lines in the Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem”: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun … or does it explode?”
I asked DuPois what “Raisin” means to her. “The play has been in my life since I was a teenager,” she told me in a phone interview. “I was away at school when the original cast came to my hometown of Philadelphia for tryouts. Somehow my mother invited the whole cast and playwright over for dinner. I have the original theatre poster with every single signature including Lorraine Hansberry’s and Lloyd Richards’. That was my first introduction.”
A nursing and pre-med major who received her degree in biology, she said that after seeing a production of Jean Anouilh’s “Medea,” “It flipped my switch,” and she moved toward acting instead.
She auditioned for a local production of “Raisin,” winning the role of Beneatha and later played Ruth opposite Glynn Turman as Walter Lee; Turman had played Travis in the original Broadway production. Later her Ruth was paired with another Travis, played by a young actor who became the (late) rapper Tupac Shakur.
By 1986 she became Ruth again for the play’s 25th anniversary at New York’s Roundabout Theatre. And she starred in a critically acclaimed film of the play, recorded for broadcast by PBS on American Playhouse. By 2010, she was in Manchester, England, performing onstage at The Royal Exchange Theatre, this time as Mama.
“Now six years later I’m able to do her here in America,” she said. “To have performed this play through the eyes of all three of these women is monumental.”
The story revolves around the American dream and how the family will use an insurance settlement from the death of the father. Mama wants a house, Walter Lee wants his own business and Beneatha wants to be a doctor.
Mama puts money down on a house in a “neighborhood where blacks aren’t wanted,” explained DuPois. “This happened to Lorraine Hansberry’s family — when they moved into a white neighborhood, her father had to sit out at night with a rifle to protect his family.” The Hansberry case made it to court, and while unsuccessful for them, it resulted in the eventual disappearance of covenants restricting housing on the basis of race.
“Lorraine Hansberry was prophetic,” said DuPois. “So many things politically and socially that she wrote about have come to pass.”
DuPois can relate personally to each of the characters she’s played. Like Beneatha, she wanted to be a doctor. Like Ruth, she’s a mother seeking a better life for her son and unborn child (DuPois adopted her son at age 4 from the foster care system).
And Mama says, “I did the best I could,” buying in a white neighborhood because, “All the homes they put up for coloreds in those way-out areas seemed to cost twice as much.” DuPois settled for a more modest house in L.A.
Redlining is not necessarily a thing of the past. DuPois lived for a while in Point Dume and was rejected for a loan and cold-shouldered by neighbors. “But like Mama,” she said, “I love a beautiful garden, and people would see mine, admire it and start to speaking to me about it.”
She approached her aging neighbors, telling them that in an emergency, since their families were not nearby, she would probably be the one to pick them up or cook meals for them — which happened after the Northridge earthquake.
“Love is the most powerful force in nature,” she said, “and you can love people through their prejudices, hopefully. That’s what I was able to do there.”
She also understands the meaning of family. DuPois has extensive credits as an actress and received numerous awards for her work. But for a period of time, she gave up her role in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” on Broadway to care for her dying father.
“And I didn’t work for two years, which can be a death knell in this business,” she said. “But what I gained was priceless. God says honor your parents so your days will be long. So I have that joy and that peace.”
DuPois also has something else: “The beautiful thing is that my work is respected, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“A Raisin in the Sun” runs at the Ruskin Group Theatre from July 22 through Sept. 17. For more information, visit www.ruskingrouptheatre.com.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.