African American Broadway classic comes to Sweden

A Raisin in the Sun makes history with an almost entirely black cast and raises questions about race in Sweden.

'Many of our actors and actresses went through a personal journey of self-discovery and reckoning with their reality as black Swedes' [Al Jazeera]
'Many of our actors and actresses went through a personal journey of self-discovery and reckoning with their reality as black Swedes' [Al Jazeera]

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes

When Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ – the first Broadway play written by an African American woman – premiered in New York in 1959, it was as thought-provoking, controversial and inspiring as the poem from which it borrowed its title.

Set at the start of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, it centres on an African American family, the Youngers, as they dream of a better life but encounter the harsh realities of American racism.

It became a Broadway classic and is once again making history – this time in Sweden, in Swedish, where it is due to premiere for the first time in Scandinavia on February 5th, the National Touring Theatre of Sweden, Riksteatern.

It will be the first time that a play has featured an all-black lead cast in Sweden. In fact, all the roles but one are played by black actors. 

Josette Bushell-Mingo’s [right], professional career covers 35 years as an award-winning actress, teacher and director in the UK, internationally and in Sweden. She received an ‘Order of the British Empire’ from Queen Elizabeth II [Urban Jören/ Al Jazeera]

“Many of our actors and actresses went through a personal journey of self-discovery and reckoning with their reality as black Swedes,” explains the play’s director, Josette Bushell-Mingo.

Bushell-Mingo – who is also the artistic director of the Riksteatern Tyst Teater, a chairperson for CINEMAFRICA, and chairperson for TRYCK, the Afro-Swedish organisation for culture workers – is on a mission to bring more African voices to the forefront of Swedish arts and theatre.

And it comes, she believes, at an important time for Sweden. 

Race hate crimes

A recent government-sponsored report has revealed that black Swedes – or Afro-Swedes as they are commonly called in Sweden – particularly male Afro-Swedes – are more likely to be victims of racist attacks than any other minority in the country.

Since 2008, when Sweden’s Crime Preventing Body (Brottsförebygganderådet – BRÅ) began keeping statistics, the number of recorded hate crimes against blacks has increased at an alarming rate.

Bushell-Mingo draws parallels between the experiences of the play’s Younger family in segregated 1950s Chicago, its psychological consequences and the experiences of many black Swedes today.

And while the circumstances they encounter are by no means equal, there are certain similarities she says the public, especially black and minority audiences, can relate to. “It’s a feeling of discrimination that can only be understood by people that go through it in their daily life.”

RELATED: Racist murder sparks Sweden’s Black Lives Matter

Culture as a form of power and a tool for change

Sweden is currently home to an estimated 180,000 black Swedes, around 90 percent of whom have roots in sub-Saharan Africa. Forty percent of these were born in Sweden. 

But Bushell-Mingo, who moved to Sweden from the UK in 2004, believes black Swedes, along with other minority groups, struggle to find representation in the country’s cultural and artistic scene. And this is important, she says, because culture is a tool for political change.

“Culture creates environments for people to express and understand themselves, as well as empower and inspire. Theatre and culture speak more directly to the people …”

Bushell-Mingo draws connections between the findings of the report on racism towards black Swedes and the discussions about representation in Sweden.

The poster of ballet dancer Clyde Emmanuel Archer sparked controversy in Sweden which promoted the Royal Opera House to remove it [Kungliga Operan/Al Jazeera]

She points to two particular examples: The first is that of the artist Makode Linde naming his art exhibition ‘Return of the n***** king’ – which he later changed after protests emerged from the public through newspaper debates in articles and social media. The second is the controversial poster for the Swedish Royal Opera House which in expressing and emotional aspect of the production showed a white foot pressing on the face of a black male dancer, which was again met with ferocious arguments in newspapers and social media.

“We need to discuss what this means. We need to discuss and examine what … makes it OK to use the n-word . What the word means in Sweden. Do we know what that word came from – the pain, the struggle?” says Bushell-Mingo. 

“The opera poster incident was PR mistake. What was being discussed during the meeting where that decision was made …?” Bushell-Mingo asks. That is what is distressing but also politically challenging.

Bushell-Mingo believes that culture and art are crucial to challenging these questions, to showing the evil of racism, as well as encouraging Afro-Swedes to be proud and embrace all aspects of their heritage.

READ MORE: Somali children’s magazine launched in Sweden

‘Telling our own stories’

“In order for us to move forward, we need to understand where we have come from, also as a diaspora,” Bushell-Mingo says.

“That is why doing the play ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ is so important on so many levels. It is not the only play out there, and there are many more to be done.

Kayode Shekoni [right], as Mother Lena, and David Lenneman [left], as Walter Lee, during rehearsal of the classic Broadway play [Urban Jören/Al Jazeera]

Afro-Swedish plays must be written, too. So this play, she believes, can be part of the cultural journey for Afro-Swedes as they deal with more racism, more debate, questions of class, more pride – a journey, like the Younger family, that will be tough, scary and, in the end, triumphant

“Great art is like that,” she says. “It’s like a mirror that is there, constantly looking back at us.”

In the future, Bushell-Mingo would like to see the creation of an African-Swede theatre company that produces African diaspora plays.

WATCH: No such thing as race in Sweden?

She quotes the award-winning African American playwright, August Wilson: “It’s important to tell our stories, because we do it differently. We need to find our stories again to remind us where we come from and to give us the strength to carry on,” she adds.

She considers the play a form of activism for her children and for future generations.

“‘A Raisin in The Sun’ … also shows us that we are not alone. We, as black people, have the humanity, dignity and grace. We are part of a great spiritual lineage, and our souls have been here forever – and our diverse history strengthens us.”

You can follow Fatma Naib on Twitter @FatmaNaib

Source : Al Jazeera


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