A Theatre’s Place in the City

It is 8’clock pm on a Saturday night. As I walk with my friend through the dimly lit parking lot, I think to myself, ‘I am so happy I was able to get a ride here.’ I feel uneasy as we walk down an ally between two houses to finally arrive at the theatre doors. I breath a sigh of relieve as I finally enter The Palace Theatre to see A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.

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A view from my seat and the program for ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ at The Palace Theatre.

A Raisin in the Sun presents the Younger family, an African American family living in a worn down small apartment in Chicago. Each member of the family has a dream, but the main focus of the plot is the dream of both Ruth Younger and her mother-in-law, Lena Younger (Mama), for the family to move into a house. The play begins with the family inheriting insurance money after the passing of Mama’s husband (also Walter and Beneatha’s father). Mama uses some of the money to buy the family a house in Clybourne Park. The problem is, as Ruth points out, “[T]here ain’t no coloured people living in Clybourne Park” (Hansberry 93). Hansberry touches on themes of race, identity, family and the challenge African Americans face while pursuing the American dream.

I saw the performance of A Raisin in the Sun for a drama class. After seeing the performance, my professor handed out a participation assignment. One question on the assignment asked about the location of The Palace Theatre. How did we feel going to this location? How did the location of the theatre align with the feelings of the Younger family’s move to Clybourne Park? These questions made me think, but not in the way my professor was looking for. I began reflecting on a striking moment of my experience, which comes from what Jen Harvie discusses in Theatre & The City as the concept of cultural materialism.

In Theatre & The City, Jen Harvie lists examples of cultural materialism in relation to a theatre’s “space, institutional structures and practices, money and people” (24-25). Harvie quotes Marvin Carlson to further explain elements of cultural materialism: “‘The entire theatre, its audience arrangements, its other public spaces, its physical appearance, even its location within a city, are all important elements of the process by which an audience makes meaning of its experience’” (24). Carlson suggests that an experience with theatre is about more than simply the performance.

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The exterior of The Palace Theatre in London Ontario (from lfpress.com).

My experience of unease walking up to The Palace Theatre doors is an example of Carlson’s description. The Palace Theatre is located in a low socioeconomic area in London, Ontario, and students are warned not go there during the night. The stigma around the area known as “east of Adelaide” is not discussed in great detail but is simply known; it can hinder a student’s opinion of the Palace Theatre. I will note that The Palace Theatre has deep historical connections to the city of London.
However, as Harvie mentions, “the signification of locations can shift” (26). On the other hand, the centrally located Grand Theatre in London is positioned on what students call ‘Richmond Row.’ The juxtaposition of The Grand Theatre’s central location in comparison to The Palace Theatre’s location creates favouritism for students when they are deciding where to see local London theatre.

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The exterior of The Grand Theatre in London Ontario (from London Tourism Media).

Nevertheless, it is The Palace Theatre that offers the London Community Players, whereas The Grand Theatre often hosts travelling productions. The Palace Theatre offers a true London-run theatre experience, while The Grand Theatre cannot always promise a local London experience for students new to the area. As a theatre lover and student, my hope is for students to visit The Palace Theatre where classic and important plays such as Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun are performed. Apart from my class attending A Raisin in the Sun, there were not many students in the audience at the Palace. I hope with time ‘the signification’ of The Palace Theatre’s location will shift, building students’ comfort level so they can visit a theatre rooted in London’s history and with local actors onstage.

Works Cited

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Vintage Books, 1994.

Harvie, Jen. Theatre & The City. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Sarah Gilpin is a fourth-year English Language & Literature and Theatre Studies student at Western University and is pursuing a career in education.

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