Nine-year-old Kaedynn Starr lounged on a bronze bentwood chair melded to a circular platform stationed in the parking lot of Pillsbury House Theatre in south Minneapolis. To her left stood a statue of the late playwright Lorraine Hansberry.
"At our school we talk about Black people and what they have been through and then we try to do like a song about it," Starr said.
Hansberry was in that song Starr created at school, and Saturday was the second time Starr encountered art related to the American writer/civil rights activist best known for her play "A Raisin in the Sun." As she explained her new interest in Hansberry, she traced her fingers over a quote on the stool that read: "Write if you will, but write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be — if there is to be a world."
On Saturday, Pillsbury House, at 3501 Chicago Av. S., welcomed "To Sit Awhile," a statue by international artist and Guggenheim Fellowship recipient Alison Saar that celebrates Hansberry's life and work.
The 2,000-pound sculpture is a circular platform bordered by a sculpture of Hansberry and five chairs with engraved quotes that represent different periods in her life. Her career as a journalist gets an office chair, while a stool represents her feminist and LGBTQ activist contributions. There's the ottoman she sat on while educating Robert Kennedy on civil rights. The Modernist chair represents Hansberry's playwriting, and the bentwood chair represents her childhood home and "A Raisin in the Sun."
African diaspora scholar and activist Ayaan Natala, 26, felt emotional while researching Hansberry.
"I'm not used to there being monuments of Black people that don't reference slavery," said Natala, who worked on the project at Pillsbury House. "So, this has just been really nice to have a different interpretation of what a monument can be.
"Usually we are looking up at a white man, but this is really interactive, you can touch it, and the artist was really intentional about that."
As a digital and community-focused component, Pillsbury House co-artistic producing director Signe V. Harriday worked with the Irreducible Grace Foundation to create the Audacious Artist Cohort in which living artists are matched with one of the chairs, and then create a work inspired by Hansberry.
The idea originated in New York and the sculpture will be here until Sept. 15. The Lillys, an organization that funds women and promotes gender and racial parity in American theater, started the Lorraine Hansberry Initiative. It aims to raise $2.5 million in Hansberry's name for MFA playwriting degrees, giving people the chance to follow in her footsteps.
"She died very young, and so she's forever frozen in this moment of possibility," said two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Lillys' board member Lynn Nottage, whose work "Sweat" recently played the Guthrie Theater. "That really resonated for us and I think for Alison Saar, whose sculpture is trying to capture a piece that reflects that … the whole goal was to have a sculpture that is a paradigm shift."
Saar wanted to offer people a space to congregate and share ideas.
"So many people are intimidated by art or feel that it's not necessarily related to who they are," said Saar, whose work was part of the "Supernatural America: the Paranormal in American Art" exhibit at the Minnesota Institute of Art earlier this year. "To sit down and to read those quotes. ... I tried to get each quote and chair to represent a certain aspect of her achievements. I think it sparks this sort of curiosity."
The sculpture, in the parking lot next to Pillsbury House under a tent, is touring the country.
"That it's staying longer here and that, you know, the close proximity to George Floyd Square and just a sort of more activation around the sculpture, it felt meaningful," Harriday said.
Making sure the sculpture was accessible to the community, rather than reading a wall label about it in a museum, is another core tenet of the work. You can literally go there and sit on it and feel it.
"She writes a lot and it's kind of the same thing I do but instead of write, I draw," Starr said.
"A lot of the themes that Lorraine was going through in her life relate a lot to what I'm going through as a 26-year-old," Natala said. "Just like, being brave to speak your thoughts as a Black woman when things are happening and you might not agree, and you're kind of ahead of where society is at in terms of race relations. So working on this project was just cathartic, I felt."