BY RICHARD J ROBERTS, RESIDENT DRAMATURG
Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago in 1930. Her father, a successful real estate broker, founded one of the first banks for blacks in Chicago. Her mother was a teacher and ward committeewoman. Both were active Republicans, as well as members of the Urban League and the NAACP. Lorraine was the youngest of four children. Her father’s shrewd investments kept the family prosperous through the Depression.
In 1938 Lorraine’s father decided to fight the restrictive covenants that overran Chicago—legal contracts that prohibited white owners from selling their property to black buyers. He bought a house in Washington Park, a subdivision. When the Hansberry family moved in, their white neighbors tried to force them out, and a series of court battles ensued. In the 1940 case Hansberrry v. Lee, the Supreme Court ruled against the restrictive covenant in Washington Park—but did not rule on the constitutionality of restrictive covenants in general. Although it was not a complete victory, the decision opened 30 formerly restricted Chicago blocks to African Americans.
The Hansberrys became prominent figures in Chicago’s black community, and they hosted many of America’s most prominent African Americans in their home. Lorraine grew up surrounded by such visiting luminaries as author and activist W. E. B. Du Bois; actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson; poet Langston Hughes; musician Duke Ellington; and Olympic athlete Jesse Owens.
Lorraine’s father died in 1946, when Lorraine was 15. She later said that “American racism helped kill him.” The death of a father would later become a central element of A Raisin in the Sun.
After attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison for two years, Hansberry moved to New York City in 1950, “to seek an education of a different kind.” In 1951 she moved to Harlem and joined the staff of Freedom, the progressive black newspaper published by Paul Robeson. She worked her way up to editorial assistant, eventually writing news articles and editorials about U.S. and global Civil Rights issues. In 1953, when Robeson was denied a visa by the State Department, she attended a peace conference in Uruguay.
That same year she married Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish songwriter, publisher, and political activist whom she had met at a protest against racial discrimination at NYU. The couple moved to Greenwich Village and Hansberry began writing full time.
In 1957 the couple separated, although they continued to work together, and Hansberry began writing A Raisin in the Sun. While the circumstances of the play’s impoverished Younger family are very different from those of Hansberry’s own well off family, clearly the play’s story of a black family considering a move into a white neighborhood is closely related to the playwright’s childhood.
It took two years to raise the money to produce the first Broadway play by an African American woman. When A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959, it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. At 29, Hansberry was not only the first black playwright to win the award, but also the youngest to do so.
In 1960, Hansberry was commissioned by NBC to write a TV drama for the centennial of the Civil War; but her script, called The Drinking Gourd, was considered too controversial, and the project died. In 1961, A Raisin in the Sun was filmed with seven of its original Broadway cast, including Sydney Poitier. Hansberry wrote the screenplay, after two initial attempts that were again deemed too controversial.
In 1963 Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She and her husband officially divorced in 1964, but they kept working together. That same year, her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, opened on Broadway. The title character is a Jewish man who publishes an underground newspaper in Greenwich Village, and the play deals with black activism, feminism, gay rights, and prejudice. The play received mixed reviews and ran for only three months. It closed in January 1965, on the day that Hansberry died at the age of 34.
In 1968 Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s ex-husband, collected her unpublished writings, journal entries, speeches, and interviews, and created a play, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. It was a great success Off Broadway and toured all across America. The material was published as a book the next year and received more critical acclaim. The title comes from a speech Hansberry gave in 1964 to winners of a United Negro College Fund creative writing contest: “Though it be a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic, to be young, gifted, and black.”
For the last four years of her life, Hansberry had labored over Les Blancs, a play set in Africa and focused on the struggle to achieve independence from European Colonialism. An epic play on a Shakespearean scale, Les Blancs uses music and dance to theatricalize African culture. Hansberry considered it her most important work. In 1970, Nemiroff compiled and edited the incomplete drafts of the play and produced it on Broadway, with a cast that included James Earl Jones. It was lauded by some critics, but only ran for a month.
In 1973 the musical Raisin, based on Hansberry’s first play, opened on Broadway, winning two Tony Awards, including Best Musical. There have been two Broadway revivals of A Raisin in the Sun. The 2004 production featured Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald, who both won Tony Awards. The 2014 starred Denzel Washington and won three Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Play.
Hansberry’s untimely death left a void in American theatre and in the circle of black writers. In response to this great loss, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Her commitment of spirit … her creative literary ability, and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.”
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