'It's damn fine playwriting,' — A conversation with Timothy McCuen Piggee on 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Timothy McCuen Piggee is no stranger to Seattle theatregoers, as a frequent performer on local stages over the last two-plus decades. But in his latest role, you won’t see him at the forefront. Instead, he’s serving as the director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of the Lorraine Hansberry classic, “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Piggee was already familiar with the work, teaching it in his text analysis class at Cornish College of the Arts. He’s also been on the performing end of it, playing Bobo in the Intiman Theatre’s 2001 production.

The Queen Anne & Magnolia News spoke with Piggee by phone to discuss the play, which runs Sept. 30 through Oct. 30 in the Bagley Wright Theatre. Opening night is Oct. 5. Tickets are on sale through the Seattle Rep box office at (206) 443-2222 and online at seattlerep.org.


Q: You’ve been teaching this work at Cornish for several years, so what do you feel you’ve learned about this play over that time and with that analysis?

Piggee: Well, I learned like any great piece of art that it consistently reveals itself, that there are instances in the play that I thought I knew so well that still continue to catch me off guard and surprise me. It’s like, 'Oh, wow, I guess I had never really thought of it in that context,' or, 'I never heard it that way before.'


Q: How much does it help you that you’ve also been on the other side of a production of “A Raisin in the Sun’ in the ensemble?

Piggee: In a way, it kind of lets you cut the line (laughs). Hopefully I can be of assistance to the actors saying, you know, here’s what it’s like to run the marathon so here might be one or two pieces of advice in order to climb the mountain everyday, or run the race everyday. Production wise, as I said I get to cut the line in terms, well I think it’s going to take this amount of time for this to happen or this to happen, or in terms of the staging we need to plan ahead for X, Y, and Z, so that’s been very, very helpful.


Q: How do you put your own spin on this play, when people have their own assumptions as to what this play is, being so iconic.

Piggee: I think my role is to get out of Lorraine’s way, and let Lorraine speak to the audience that she was writing for. I knew that this play did not need my particular sort of assistance, as a director to put my stamp on it. I feel that I’m doing service to the play if the relationships are clear, if the journey is specific, and if the palpable given circumstances are landing with the audience. That’s why I think the play is so great is that it’s as timely as ever. The struggles are still with us. I have a feeling that if a character has a particular line, it might have a different sort of resonance than it did in 1959, here in 2016. For example, when Karl Linder says, “you can’t force people to change their hearts.” That’s a discussion that we’re having in our political debate right now. So I really want to assist the language, if I can, and have it land on these 2016 sensibilities.


Q: How important do you think it is to bring this production back to the stage at this point in our nation’s history?

Piggee: You know, it’s an interesting question. I’ve heard some contrary opinions about, why produce this play yet again, or I’ve had people call it a museum piece. In fact, I really don’t know, I want to ask them, well what does that mean if it’s a museum piece? Does that mean you get tired at looking at the Rembrandt, or is there something in the David that you believe you completely know inside and out? I think that in Seattle we are living in a culture where, at least when I moved here, what made Seattle so interesting and so vibrant was the diversity of not just ethnic backgrounds, but you had artists and innovators and just a wide variety of people that were making up this community, and now with the housing situation the way it is, we have people who can’t even afford to live in the city that they work in. I also think that, upon reflection, Seattle is one of the most segregated cities I’ve ever lived in.


Q: What do you think has been the hardest part in preparing for this production?

Piggee: The hardest part is probably getting over myself, really wanting to, because I’m primarily known as an actor in town, so it’s how do I not try to confuse the two worlds, or if I felt that I needed to keep them separate, it’s which hat am I wearing? I think the difficult part is the show is going to open, and it will no longer need me, I hand it over to the actors and they get to hand it over to the audiences. So I’m feeling … it’s a bittersweet moment, I think, which I don’t think I really sort of thought about before, if that makes any sense. That, you know, my job is over on Oct. 5, and so I think the actor in me wants to take the rest of the ride, where the director in me is feeling, I don’t know, I don’t have any children but I don’t know if that’s what an empty nest period feels like or not.


Q: How do you think your acting background helps you as a director?

Piggee: I think it’s helped me stand in the shoes of the cast, and hopefully I’ve been responsive enough to ask them questions that I always liked to be asked as a director, and I hope that I have made them feel included in a number of the decisions that they have to make fly on stage every night.


Q: Tell me a bit about the cast you have for this production.

Piggee: They are such gems. We have a mix of local and out-of-town. Our Walter Lee, Richard Prioleau, it’s a great role for him because I think it’s happening right on time in his life, in terms of his timeline and in terms of his growth as an artist. We have Mia Ellis, who’s playing Ruth, and I asked her the other day, “Have you ever played Ruth before, have you ever been in this play?” And she says, “No, I’ve auditioned a handful of times but they just never went my way.” And I just thought, how could that be? The moment she walked in the room it was like, of course, of course that this is the beating heart of this play. We have Claudine Nako, who is well known to Seattle audiences, and I think it’s going to be, I think her take on Beneatha is refreshing and energetic, and I think they will be pretty excited by it. At least I hope so.

And then of course the woman who is playing Arlena [Denise Burse], who appeared at Seattle Rep’s production of brownsville (song) last fall, so it’s great to sort of see an artist like that return and take on a different sort of challenge after developing somewhat of a following in a previous piece.


Q: What differences do you think people who have seen ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ before will see in this version?

Piggee: Well, I don’t know. That’s a tough question for me, I think, to answer. I hope that they will perhaps maybe hear things differently than they might have eight, 10 years ago. I think it’s my hope that when they walk out it’s like, “Huh. I thought we would have traveled some distance from where this play leaves us.” And in some ways we may have, but what are the places that we haven’t? In what areas have we not in this post-Ferguson and soon to be post-Obama world that we live in?


Q: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Piggee: I think it’s been an amazing experience, being able to work in tandem with the literary state for Lorraine Hansberry and having access to her previous draft of the play. And being able to sort of mine through her writing and her telegrams, and actually sitting down with the documents where her red pencil actually crossed out sections of the text, and she wasn’t very surgical in her edits. She would just go ahead and X out entire pages, paragraphs, so I don’t think she was precious in her editing, but what she’s left us with is a very streamlined and impressive script, so much so that’s why I teach it, that’s why it’s included in a number of textbooks, because it’s damn fine playwriting.