The play’s still the thing for over 20 years
In this season of discontent, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company offers solace in the beauty and drama of theater.
From its modest beginnings 20 years ago, the company is now among the 15 largest Shakespeare theater companies in the country.
Its repertoire has expanded beyond the Bard to feature more modern classics. In fact, its new season opened in February with the company premiere of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” a piercing portrait of race and the struggle for social progress in mid-century America.
When it debuted on Broadway in 1959, the play was a first in many ways — in its groundbreaking subject matter, being written by a Black woman, produced with a Black director and featuring a mostly Black cast, led by Sidney Poitier. Frank Rich of The New York Times said the play “changed American theater forever.”
The title “A Raisin in the Sun” comes from the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem,” which asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”
The story revolves around the dreams and relationships of a Black family living in the south side of Chicago in the late 1940s. As they struggle to improve their lives and keep the family together, they must deal with racism, poverty and housing discrimination.
“A play only becomes a ‘classic’ when generations of theatergoers deem it so — when over many changing eras it remains vital to the current time in which it exists, and when its message continues to be relevant enough that people flock to it year after year,” director Reggie Phoenix said in a statement.
Gerrad Alex Taylor wears two hats in this production, serving as associate artistic director while returning to the stage in the role of the Younger family’s patriarch, Walter Lee.
Taylor has been a driving force behind broadening the company’s canon to better reflect “the perspective of communities we directly serve, or we run the risk of serving no one,” he said in a statement.
In keeping with this idea, CSC invited first responders and frontline workers to a free preview of “A Raisin in the Sun.” Audience members can engage in in-depth discussions before the Feb. 20 show with UMBC faculty members.
Performances indoors and out
The company was founded in 2002 by Ian Gallanar and other Shakespeare enthusiasts with day jobs. They opened with a production of “Twelfth Night,” operating from a small black-box theater in Ellicott City, Maryland, seen by 100 people.
The following season the company found the perfect outdoor home in the atmospheric ruins of a 19th-century boarding school in Ellicott City. Known today as the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park (PFI), this unique performance space remains the company’s summer arena.
In 2014, the company opened their main stage in downtown Baltimore at the corner of Calvert and Redwood Streets, just a few blocks from the Inner Harbor. Extensive remodeling transformed the former Mercantile Trust and Deposit Building — a landmark 1886 bank — into a modern version of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
Three years later, the company expanded its Baltimore campus to include administrative offices and The Studio at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, a multi-functional space where all branches of the company meet and new ideas take root. It also serves as the site for community events, such as the blood drive creatively scheduled during its run of “Dracula.”
The Studio at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company serves all ages with lessons in acting; theater craft and design; critical analysis of plays; and day camp programs. More than 16,000 students have learned about Shakespeare’s plays through the camp programs.
Under the energetic supervision of co-founder and producing executive director Lesley Malin, CSC has developed a devoted following, both in the audience and on stage. Many company members have performed with CSC since its inception.
Co-founder Gallanar is still with the company, too. He’s also president of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, the international organization for professional Shakespeare theaters.
With the company’s impressive acting talents and flair for innovative design and presentation, CSC makes Shakespeare lively and accessible to a wide range of audiences. They’ve even performed “Macbeth” at the Patuxent Institution, a maximum-security prison.
Students cheer for Shakespeare
What does a typical theatrical season involve? The CSC produces up to four plays, at least two of which are by Shakespeare, on the main stage downtown. Other carefully chosen classics round out the schedule.
Their outreach to students includes a matinee of “Macbeth” in the fall and a daytime production of “Romeo and Juliet” in the spring. For many children, these plays are their first introduction to Shakespeare. They may start out hesitant, but “they leave cheering,” Malin said.
Every Christmas, CSC transplants Dickens “A Christmas Carol” to 19th-century Baltimore on their main stage.
In summertime, Shakespeare fans flock to its performances in the ruins at PFI Historic Park. Autumn typically brings about a production there of their wildly popular “movable” format — an interactive and immersive experience in which the audience follows the actors amid the ruins.
In its next season, the company will officially celebrate its 20th anniversary, triumphantly revisiting “Twelfth Night,” the show that started it all.
Theater is a discipline that is particularly sensitive to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” But even during what Malin describes as “the fallow year” of the pandemic, creativity, like hope, springs eternal. It became a time to reflect, she said, on “what we want to do, who we want to be and who we want to serve.”
Malin sees a future that extends CSC’s programs “beyond our walls,” bringing productions to areas without live theater while continuing to diversify on stage and behind the scenes. After all, she said, “theater is a help to democracy,” a vital communal experience in an isolated and divided world.
“A Raisin in the Sun” runs through Feb. 27, 2022 on the main stage, 7 S. Calvert St. Proof of vaccination and mask required.
For more about the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s current season, visit chesapeakeshakespeare.com or call the box office at (410) 244-8570.
Correction: The print version of this story included incorrect titles of Ian Gallanar and Lesley Malin. They are the immediate past president and producing executive director.