The Public Theater’s 2022-23 season will feature a mix of works rooted in history and new pieces that speak to current cultural shifts — toward racial justice, equity and disability rights. The season kicks off with a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun,” about a Black family’s bid to move into a house in a white neighborhood of Chicago, directed by Robert O’Hara (“Slave Play,” “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night”). Performances are scheduled to begin Sept. 27.
This is not O’Hara’s first interpretation of the classic: He also directed a version in 2019, starring S. Epatha Merkerson, at the Williamstown Theater Festival. (The Public Theater said this will be a new production, not a remounting of the Williamstown staging.) He is also a playwright (“Barbecue,” “Bootycandy”), and in 2010 he wrote his own sequel to Hansberry’s play, “The Etiquette of Vigilance.”
The season will also include the New York premiere of “Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge” — conceived by Greig Sargeant, and developed it as member of Elevator Repair Service, and directed by John Collins — starting Sept. 24. The play re-enacts a 1965 debate between the writer and civil rights advocate James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review and an architect of the 20th-century conservative movement, for which they were asked if “the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” The show had its premiere last fall at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public, said he wants to help put Hansberry and Baldwin “back at the center of our dramatic tradition.” Baldwin, a towering literary figure, found less success as a dramatist, partly because of the mostly white cultural gatekeepers of the ’60s and ’70s. Hansberry became the first Black woman to be produced on Broadway when “A Raisin in the Sun,” premiered there in 1959, but died just a few years later in 1965.
“It’s absolutely vital for our understanding of this current moment, particularly in terms of relationships between Black and white America,” Eustis said in an interview. “It’s also saying, ‘Hey, Shakespeare isn’t the only classic voice that matters.’”
The upcoming slate of shows balances lessons from the past with insights into the future of theater. The New York premiere of “Where We Belong,” by Madeline Sayet, a member of the Mohegan tribe, grapples with the legacy of Shakespeare and colonization. Mei Ann Teo will direct the show, which is being produced with Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in association with the Folger Shakespeare Library. Performances are set to begin Oct. 28.
For Eustis, Sayet’s solo piece fits well into the current cultural movement. “It’s a wave that has picked us up and thrown us forward, and said, ‘It is time to really deal with the legacy of slavery,’” Eustis said. “‘It is time to really turn and fundamentally alter race relations in this country.’”
Artists who have previously had works staged at the Public — like Suzan-Lori Parks, the theater’s writer in residence; James Ijames; and Erika Dickerson-Despenza — will return this season with new plays.
Parks’s “Plays for the Plague Year,” which will be staged in November, began as a collection of plays that the playwright wrote each day from March 2020 to April 2021. It will be followed by “The Harder They Come,” featuring Jimmy Cliff’s songs and a book by Parks, in the winter of 2023. The work is a new musical adaptation of the 1972 Perry Henzell film, about a young singer (played by Cliff) in Jamaica eager to become a star only to become an outlaw after being pushed to desperate circumstances. Tony Taccone will direct, with codirection by Sergio Trujillo, and choreography is by Edgar Godineaux.
“That longevity of a relationship with a major artist is hugely important, not only to Suzan-Lori, but to making a statement to the field that it’s possible to spend a life in the theater,” Eustis said. “You can actually keep your feet in the theater and ground your whole career.”
“Good Bones,” written by Ijames (who won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for drama for “Fat Ham,” which is currently onstage at the Public in its New York premiere), will have its world premiere in the spring of 2023. The play, directed by Saheem Ali, explores gentrification and the growing price of the American dream. “Shadow/Land,” by Dickerson-Despenza (who won the Blackburn Prize for her play “Cullud Wattah”) and directed by Candis C. Jones, is the first installment of a 10-play cycle about the Hurricane Katrina diaspora. The Public produced it as an audio play during the pandemic. Performances also begin in spring 2023.
Ryan J. Haddad will make his Off Broadway playwriting debut with “Dark Disabled Stories,” about strangers he encounters while navigating a city not built for cerebral palsy, in the winter of 2023. Jordan Fein is directing the play, produced by the Bushwick Starr and presented by the Public. It probes discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.