STOCKHOLM — Groundbreaking at the time, the 1959 Broadway play “A Raisin in the Sun” showcased to a wider public the struggles of a poor African-American family on the South Side of Chicago.
The main characters — Walter Lee Younger and his wife, Ruth; his mother, Lena; and his sister, Beneatha — grapple with issues of race, dignity, generational clashes and dashed dreams.
On Friday, the play will break different ground: It will be performed by an overwhelmingly African-Swedish cast here at the Riksteatern, in the first major Swedish rendition of the play.
The play, originally written by Lorraine Hansberry, is expected to draw wide interest in a country whose tradition of welcoming newcomers from other cultures is threatened. Several recent reports have pointed to an increasing number of racially motivated attacks on Swedes of African descent, along with rising xenophobia amid Europe’s migrant crisis.
The cast says it is important to show black actors in black roles and to stage a play that addresses discrimination in such a personal manner. “Every day we rehearse, it becomes more important,” said Josette Bushell-Mingo, an actress of African descent and the production’s director.
“Why the play has not been done before is the question,” she added.
Sweden’s history with Africa dates to the 17th century, when it had minor colonies there, and, later, in the Caribbean. It lost those colonies to other European powers and abolished slavery in 1847. The work of Swedish missionaries in Africa in the 20th century brought some Africans to Sweden, particularly adoptees and students.
From the 1970s onward, Sweden took in large numbers of African migrants and refugees, especially from conflict zones like the Horn of Africa.
Continue reading the main story
Representing various experiences, African-Swedes, those defined as residents with roots in sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean, number “around 180,000, of whom 60 percent are foreign born, while 40 percent were born in Sweden,” according to the Multicultural Center’s Afrophobia Report of 2014, commissioned by Sweden’s ministry of integration.
For decades, Sweden’s migrant, refugee and cultural policies have been open and tolerant. Critics, however, point to challenges of social and economic integration, citing huge disparities between the quality of life for African-Swedes and members of the larger society.
In addition, a 2015 report by the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent pointed to rising hate crimes against African-Swedes.
“Afro-Swedes are most exposed to hate crimes, and reports of Afrophobic hate crimes have increased by 24 percent since 2008,” the report said. “In this context, hate crime units and investigators are insufficient. Many cases are reported, but few are investigated and prosecuted.”
Many here point to Sweden’s view of itself as a humanitarian society as part of the problem. Tobias Hubinette, an associate professor at Karlstad University and an author of the Afrophobia Report, said that there were many good things about Sweden but that they “blind us to the disparities because we are not used to seeing them.”
The actors in this take of the Broadway classic, who represent various backgrounds and experiences of African-Swedes, were not hesitant to explain the challenges of integration in Sweden.
“Racism used to be very settled, a curiosity,” said Kayo Shekoni, who is of Nigerian descent and plays the role of Lena Younger. “Now it’s open,” she said.
The Internet has become a way for racist rhetoric to be exchanged, she said: “People are scared, and we are scared.”
David Lenneman, whose father came from Gambia and whose mother is Swedish, was critical of the country’s official integration policies.
“You are told, ‘you are not black, you are Swedish,’ but when you try to be Swedish, you are not allowed in,” said Mr. Lenneman, who plays the role of Walter Younger.
Generational clashes in the play also reflect the reality of many African-Swedes.
“When I told my mother that I wanted to do music, she was shocked,” said Asha Ali, who is of Somali descent and plays the role of Beneatha Younger. Her mother, from a traditional society, did not approve of a career in entertainment.
And while the play may shed light on Sweden’s integration challenges, the production also offers a different Swedish connection to Ms. Hansberry’s work.
In the early 1960s, Lisbeth Gronlund, who translated “A Raisin in the Sun,” was a Swedish high school exchange student in the United States. Her stay made her aware of the racial disparities in the country, so she decided to pursue studies in African-American literature when she returned to Europe. While conducting research for her master’s degree, she corresponded with Robert Nemiroff, Ms. Hansberry’s former husband and a promoter of her work.
Mr. Nemiroff invited Ms. Gronlund to the United States to examine Ms. Hansberry’s writings.
“I got access to what was then unpublished material,” Ms. Gronlund said.
When Ms. Gronlund returned to Europe, she translated the play and began looking for publishers. But no one in Sweden was interested — until now.
Ms. Gronlund became aware through a friend that Ms. Bushell-Mingo, the director, was organizing a production of the play in Stockholm and was looking for someone to translate it. Ms. Gronlund contacted Ms. Bushell-Mingo to set up a meeting.
“When I understood who she was, I suggested that she just for the hell of it send in a translation of two of the scenes,” Ms. Bushell-Mingo said. She recalled her reaction after reading them: “It was, Wow!”
In addition to Ms. Gronlund’s familiarity with Ms. Hansberry’s work, her translation, Ms. Bushell-Mingo said, took into account working-class vernacular, befitting for the play’s characters.
“I thought, thank goodness I’m alive to experience this day,” Ms. Gronlund said.
Margaret B. Wilkerson, a professor emerita of dramatic art at the University of California, Berkeley, said she was thrilled to hear about the production in Sweden, but was not surprised.
“The play continues to be relevant to many,” said Ms. Wilkerson, whose biography on Ms. Hansberry is expected to be released in 2017.
“It’s a story about everyone who has felt a stranger in their own land,” she said. “How do you use literature to address issues that people don’t want to hear about?”
The actors, who said they followed African-American pop culture and politics, including the Black Lives Matter movement, expressed their admiration for the play.
“What’s great about this production is that you are able to see yourself,” Mr. Lenneman said. “I can relate to that.”
Mans Clausen, who plays the roles of George Murchison and Bobo and was adopted from Ethiopia as a child, said he hoped the play would have a positive effect in Sweden.
“I hope it will be an eye-opener and an inspiration for the next generation,” he said.
Read more at: http://scenkonstportalen.riksteatern.se/produktion/3074