It is the kind of pinch-me moment theatrical lore is riddled with: the last-minute call to stand in for a celebrated director (or actor or dancer) in a production that could catapult a career.
And yet the mood was bittersweet when, in late July, Jade King Carroll was asked to replace Israel Hicks at the helm of the Juilliard Drama Division presentation of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s play about a black family on the South Side of Chicago whose dreams collide as they await a $10,000 insurance check.
Hicks, perhaps best known for directing the entirety of August Wilson’s decade-by-decade cycle about the African-American experience in the 20th century, and an especially potent influence among black theater artists, died on July 3 at age 66.
“It’s a little daunting to be walking in his footsteps,” Carroll said in an interview in early September between meetings for the production, which showcases the talents of fourth-year drama students and runs from October 20 through 24.
“As a young African-American director, it’s a dream to be working on this play,” she said. “This is a play that has so much history, and it’s one of those plays that younger directors don’t often get a chance to do. So it was a wonderful surprise that came on the heels of a great, great loss. Israel Hicks was someone I was looking forward to meeting.”
At its 1959 premiere, A Raisin in the Sun broke ground as the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway; staged by a black director, Lloyd Richards; and starring a black cast headlined by Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, and Ruby Dee.
Reviewing Hansberry’s creation in The New York Times, the critic Brooks Atkinson called the play “honest.” He added, “A Raisin in the Sun has vigor as well as veracity and is likely to destroy the complacency of any one who sees it.” A surprise hit, Raisin ran for 530 performances and won a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play, ultimately proving its ability to transcend race and class.
“To do anything to maintain your family, to get through the bad times, everybody—everybody—can understand that,” Hicks once said of Raisin, which he had most recently directed at the Actors Theater of Louisville in 2008 and the Denver Center Theater Company last year. There were moments when Hicks’s “powerful, painful staging” made that production “utterly unwatchable,” John Moore, The Denver Post theater critic, wrote. “It’s that good.”
But though Carroll is less than half Hicks’s age (she declined to reveal an exact figure) and barely older than the students under her guidance, she is no stranger to the play, or to the experience. Hansberry herself was only 28 at the time of the play’s debut; she died in 1965 at age 34 of pancreatic cancer.
“There’s a lot of history and passion surrounding the play,” Carroll said. “I had read it a multitude of times by the time I went into college.”
“Yes, it’s an American classic; yes, it still resonates,” she added, touching upon the legal battle of Hansberry’s own father against racially segregated housing laws in the Washington Park subdivision of Chicago, which led to a landmark Supreme Court case and forced the family to endure hostilities in what Hansberry derisively called a “warm and cuddly white neighborhood.”
“It’s a human story about love of family, seeking the American dream, becoming a man, finding yourself, resiliency—all those things that will always be true in this culture,” Carroll said. “I think it’s important to look to our past to understand where we are today and to make tomorrow better. And I think theater does that when it’s at its best. Today, everything continues to be about money. One of the themes of this play is that you can’t find your salvation in money.”
The daughter of the trumpeter and composer Baikida Carroll, Carroll grew up in Woodstock, N.Y., and as a child accompanied her father to the Public Theater in Manhattan, where he scored Lois Elaine Griffith’s White Sirens at the request of Joseph Papp, and to the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., where he wrote, with Emily Mann and Ntozake Shange, and scored the musical Betsey Brown.
“I grew up knowing I wanted to be in theater from a young age,” Carroll said, laughing. “I’m a one-trick pony.”
After graduating from SUNY-New Paltz, where she majored in theater directing, she moved to New York City and quickly won an internship with the Women’s Project. Since then, she has compiled credits with the McCarter, New Dramatists, Primary Stages, Playwrights Realm, 24 Hour Plays, and New Jersey Rep, earning her union card as a freelance director along the way. For the last year, she has served as artistic associate at Second Stage Theater under the guidance of Carole Rothman, who is mentoring her through 2011 as part of the Theater Communications Group’s New Generations Future Leader program.
It was through Carroll’s work with the Signature Theater Company, as assistant director to Ruben Santiago-Hudson on August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, that James Houghton, the company’s founding artistic director—and the Richard Rodgers Director of the Juilliard Drama Division—came to understand her vision.
“Jade is a wonderful young director who has surrounded herself with incredible artists,” Houghton said. “She has assisted multiple talents in the field and done it beautifully.”
Not insignificant in his decision to have Carroll follow in Hicks’s esteemed footsteps is what he calls “six degrees of Lorraine Hansberry”—a point from which Hicks and Carroll, through their various associations with August Wilson, and his with Lloyd Richards, both radiate.
“One of the things I am excited about is making those connections with these young artists and drawing that line for them,” Houghton said. “It’s very important that they understand where they come from and the traditions they are tied to.”
They are traditions that Carroll intends to honor while attempting to leave her own mark on A Raisin in the Sun.
“I think so many great people have put their imprint on it, but I didn’t start with anyone else’s design,” she said.
“There is a quote from Hansberry in which she states that she belongs to the school of thought that you achieve the universal by paying acute attention to the specifics,” Carroll said. “I think the challenge in this play is really finding the truth in the specificity of time and place. You can’t recreate the wheel and stay true to the story.”