By Trisha Brown
A Raisin in the Sun opened to critical acclaim in 1959, but nearly 60 years later the play is still relatable to Will Cobbs. In Arena Stage’s production of the show, opening March 31, Cobbs plays Walter Lee Younger, a man trying to be a good father, husband, son, and brother, but his methods don’t necessarily align with the rest of his family’s plans.
Walter Lee is arguably the most dynamic character in A Raisin in the Sun, and Cobbs is no stranger to playing complicated men. A graduate of Morehouse College and the Yale School of Drama, Cobbs’ first major role was in the world premiere of In the Red and Brown Water by Tarell Alvin McCraney, (who just won an Oscar for Moonlight, BTW). His many credits include productions with the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, and on Broadway in the 2013 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
With two weeks still left to go before opening night, Cobbs was already so connected with his character that he occasionally lapsed into first person when speaking about his work and the play. Makes sense, actually – his insights on topics from race and gender in A Raisin in the Sun to the show’s applicability in 2017 show that Will Cobbs is the perfect person to bring one of American theater’s most complex men to life in D.C.
A Raisin in the Sun runs at the Arena Stage March 31 through May 7.
Brightest Young Thnigs: Can you talk about how you ended up in Arena’s production of A Raisin in the Sun? Is there something specific that drew you to this production and the role of Walter Lee?
Will Cobbs: Arena Stage is somewhere that I’ve wanted to perform at for a long, long time – since I first started out back in 2005. It’s one of the places to perform on-stage in America.
The other part of it is, it’s Walter Lee. Since I read the play back in high school, Walter Lee has spoken to something deep in me, and I think that’s true for a lot of black men. It’s a part I’ve always felt connected to, and I feel so blessed to have finally gotten the opportunity to do it in such a great space.
And the time is right. It’s kind of crazy going through the play, thinking “My god, this play was so long ago,” but it really wasn’t that long ago. So much is different, and yet so much is still the same.
BYT: In that same vein, Arena Stage has made a very deliberate effort, particularly in recent years, to stage shows that are relevant to our current cultural and political context. A Raisin in the Sun opened nearly 60 years ago, but it’s still so relevant today. How does that impact your work?
WC: Particularly from Walter Lee’s standpoint, growing up black in this country means that there are certain ideas of what it means to be a man – what that looks like and what the requirements of that are. Those ideas are given to you, and at the same time, the path to achieve those things is very much not given to you.
There’s a line in the play – it makes me choke up every time it comes out of my mouth – when Walter says, “Hell yes, I want a yacht someday. I want to put pearls around my wife’s neck.” Because that’s what the world has taught me makes me a man. That’s what the world has taught her makes her a woman and makes us means successful. And yet, the opportunities that afford you that luxury are out of reach. It’s such a telling thing that the only way these things start to feel like they are within reach is with the death of your father.
It speaks to the income gap between blacks and almost everybody else in this country, and to the lack of generational wealth. More often than not, in a lot of communities, we’re passing on debt. We’re not really passing on assets. Breaking that cycle requires hard, hard, hard, hard, hard work. And it’s particularly hard when you see people around you who don’t have to work that hard, and who can’t see that they don’t have to work that hard.
BYT: I find the gender dynamics in the play to be particularly interesting as well. Walter is the center of the story and in some ways, the center of a family that also includes three strong, interesting women. On top of that, this is a play that was written by an extraordinary woman, Lorraine Hansberry. Does that gender context influence the way you view your role or the story as a whole?
WC: You can’t do the play without thinking about it. It makes me look at the women in my family and appreciate them for all of the great things that they are and all of the great things that they do.
You look at Mama (Lena, Walter’s mother), who has literally dedicated her life to providing for her children’s safety because for her generation, safety was everything. And you have Ruth (Walter’s wife) who is absolutely the glue. She tolerates a whole lot from Walter. He screams at her for not being supportive, but, oh my god, how supportive is she? She goes to work every day, she irons his clothes, she feeds and raises his child, she keeps the peace in the house – she’s everything to that house. And Beneatha (Walter’s sister), god bless her, she’s a little self-centered, but she’s all about the future, and she all about the possibilities of greatness before her and anything less than greatness is unacceptable, and that’s amazing.
And then you have Walter who is trapped by circumstance, and once again is in a world being told that ‘the man is this’ and ‘the man is that’ and he’s not allowed to be any of those things except for in name in that home. He’s not supporting everybody. Although he does bring home a paycheck, he’s not the breadwinner. He’s not running that house, which is why he’s always fighting to run that house. I think part of his heartbreak is that he’s not the hero, and I think a lot of black men can relate to feeling that way: ‘I wish so much that I could be everything to all of you, but I’m not and that’s destroying me.’
I think part of his journey is realizing, one by one, how each of these women, how significant they are to who he is and what he wants and where he’s going.
BYT: You’ve talked a bit about the income gap and wealth, and how that connects to race. Is the experience of staging this play in Washington, D.C., a city dealing on a daily basis with incredibly complex issues around race and class and housing –
WC: – And housing, yeah.
BYT: Even if you can’t speak to D.C. specifically, you’ve obviously worked and lived in a lot of urban areas. What connects D.C. or other cities to this play?
WC: I got to Atlanta in 2000, and most of the time I lived there, I lived near Morehouse College. I left Atlanta in 2009, and watching the West End – where Morehouse is – shift the way it did in those 9 years was incredible. It was incredible to watch these communities get razed to the ground. Literally projects were, one by one, demolished. And then mid-rise level apartments show up and the ownership of the neighborhoods would start to change.
It’s such a complicated thing because the economics of what’s happening are at play, the socioeconomics are at play, race feels like it’s at play. It was frustrating to watch the police presence shoot up to a crazy oppressive level as they were clearing out the projects and clearing out the “elements” and then, all of the sudden, for it to become a calmer neighborhood, a more secure neighborhood. And it’s like, where was that effort for the residents who lived in the projects?
Bringing that back to the play, it’s a hard dynamic knowing what we know now, knowing how the flow of this thing goes. Thinking about the context of Clybourne Park, places like Clybourne Park now, and to know that this family is stepping into this new possibility, but there’s a very real danger in that possibility. When all is said and done, 20, 30, 40, 50 years down the line, the neighborhood slips again and all of those people, all of that history, all of that community is swept away. Somehow the story doesn’t change.
There’s this cyclical nature to poverty that this family is really, really trying to escape. How do we do that? We do that through education. We do that through economics, but without the opportunity, without the sacrifice, nothing changes.
BYT: So given that, do you feel like this play is less hopeful in 2017 than it was in the late 1950s when it premiered? Because we do know in some ways how the story ends. We don’t know what happened to this family, but we know what happened to a lot of families. In that way, is it more depressing to stage this play now than it might have been 50 years ago?
WC: I don’t think so. We don’t know what happens to this family but we do know things change. And change is a slooow, slow, slow thing. I think Asagai, in the play, has this really great monologue where he is taking about revolution in his own part of Nigeria, but it’s also revolution everywhere. It’s slow. It’s arduous. It happens in baby steps. It happens one family, one individual, one person at a time. And I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that Beneatha didn’t have something when this all is said and done. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe Travis (Walter’s son) didn’t have something when this all is said and done.
I think that the nature of communities is shifting, particularly with technology and the fact we don’t go home the same way and we don’t neighbor up the same way, but I absolutely believe in baby steps and in individuals. Feel how you want to feel about Trump being in office and this current administration and all of the things around it, but there’s something to be said about the ebb and flow of that. You can’t push the ball back on gay rights. I mean, you can try to, but you can’t do that forever because the idea has changed. The idea has spread and changed. The awareness of violence against African Americans by law enforcement is different now. You can’t roll the ball back on that. You can’t un-blow that whistle. Things change slowly, things retrogress, but progress is still being made.
I couldn’t do this play if I didn’t believe that at the end of it, every one of those people is changed and is going to walk through the world with their heads held higher, with goals, with a new fire underneath. That’s what pushes us forward. Hope is everything. You can’t live without hope. You can’t achieve without hope. Hope has to be the way you end that story.