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Lorraine Hansberry (1930 - 1965)


American playwright and painter, whose A Raisin in the Sun (1959) was the first drama by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. It also won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award as the best play of the year. Lorraine Hansberry's portrayed individuals – not only black – who defend their own and other's dignity. "All art is ultimately social: that which agitates and that which prepares the mind for slumber," she once said.

"... in order for a person to bear his life, he needs a valid re-creation of that life, which is why, as Ray Charles might put it, blacks chose to sing the blues. This is why Raisin in the Sun meant so much to black people on the stage: the film is another matter. In the theater, a current flowed back and forth between the audience and the actors, flesh and blood corroborating flesh and blood  as we say, testifying... The root argument of the play is really far more subtle than either its detractors or the bulk of its admirers were able to see." (James Baldwin in The Devil Finds Work, 1976)

Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago, the daughter of a prominent real-estate broker, Carl Hansberry, and the niece of William Leo Hansberry (1894-1965), a Howard University professor of African history in D.C. William Leo Hansberry taught at Howard University ultil 1959, after rejecting employment offers from Atlanta University and the Honorable Marcus Garvey. A college at the University of Nigeria was named in his honor. Hansberry's parents were intellectuals and activists. Her father was an active member of the Republican Party. He won an antisegregation case before the Illinois Supreme Court, upon which the events in A Raisin in the Sun was loosely based. When Lorraine was eight, her parents bought a house in a white neighborhood, where they were welcomed one night by a racist mob. Their experience of discrimination there led to a civil rights case.

Hansberry's interest in Africa began at an early age. In an unfinished, partly autobiographical novel Hansberry wrote: "In her emotions she was sprung from the Southern Zulu and the Central Pygmy, the Eastern Watusi and the treacherous slave-trading Western Ashanti themselves. She was Kikuyu and Masai, ancient cousins of hers had made the exquisite forged sculpture at Benin, while surely even more ancient relatives sat upon the throne at Abu Simbel watching over the Nile..." (Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays: The Drinking Gourd/What Use Are Flowers? by Lorraine Hansberry, 1994, p. 27) Hansberry's parents sent her to public schools rather than private ones as a protest against the segregation laws. She studied art at the University of Wisconsin and in Mexico. In Wisconsin, Hansberry joined the Young Progressives of America and later the Labor Youth League. After attending a school performance of a play by the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey, Juno and the Paycock (1924), she decided to become a writer – "The melody was one that I had known for a very long while. I was seventeen and I did not think then of writing the melody as I knew it – in a different key; but I believe it entered my consciousness and stayed there", she described her feelings.  ('Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965' by Loretta G. Woodard, in African American Dramatists: An A-to-Z Guide, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, 2004, p. 209)

In 1950, Hansberry dropped out of college and moved to New York. She took classes in writing at the New School for Social Research and worked as an associate editor of Paul Robeson's Freedom, a radical black magazine. During this period, Hansberry met Langston Hughes, the famous Harlem Renaissance poet, whose work had deep influence on her mind. His artistic integrity served as a model for her, too.

While Hanserry was completing a seminar on African history under W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), she wrote a research paper on 'The Belgian Congo: A Preliminary Report on Its Land, Its History and Its People.' In A Raisin in the Sun a direct link to Africa was made through the Nigerian character Asagai, who represented the first appearance of an intellectual African as a major character in black American drama.

In 1953, Hansberry married Robert B. Nemiroff, a Jewish literature student and songwriter, whom she had met on a picket line protesting discrimination at New York University. Nemiroff had described her in 1951 as "a young woman on fire with black liberation, not only here but in Africa, am insurgent with a vision that embraced two continents". ('To Be Young, Gifted and Woman: Reading Rosa Luxemburg through Lorraine Hansberry and the Black Radical Tradition' by LaRose T. Parris, in Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Jane Anna Gordon and Drucilla Cornell, 2021, p. 463) Hansberry left the Freedom staff, worked as a waitress and cashier, writing on her spare time. Nemiroff gained success with his hit song, 'Cindy, Oh Cindy', and Hansberry could devote herself entirely to writing. The working title of A Raisin in the Sun was originally 'The Crystal Stair' after a line in a poem by Langston Hughes. The new title was from another Langston Hughes poem, which asked: "What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, / Or does it explode?" The play gained a huge success although the producer, Phil Rose, had never produced a play, and large investors were not interested in it. The production was first taken out of New York and played in New Haven, Philadelphia, and Chicago. In all places audiences loved it. Eventually it opened at Ethel Barrymore Theatre, on March 11, 1959. In New York, it ran 530 performances.Sidney Poitier played the role of Walter Lee.

Although the play was not banned in the South, only a few cities launched there productions until the middle 1960s. An FBI informant, who saw the play, reported that Raisin "contains no comments of any nature about Communism as such but deals essentially with negro [sic] aspirations". (The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s by Mary Helen Washington, 2016, p. 243) The film version of 1961, also starring Sidney Poitier, received a special award at the Cannes festival. When Hansberry was a college student she had written: "We want to see film about people who live and work like everybody else, but who currently must battle fierce oppression to do so." Several sections were trimmed from the screen production, because censors found some material too provocative for white  audiences. (Banned Plays: Censorship Histories of 125 Stage Dramas by Dawn B. Sova, 2004, pp. 221-222) 

A Raisin in the Sun. The play is a "living-room" drama, set in the South Side slums of Chicago. Walter Lee, a black chauffeur, dreams of a better life. "I want so many things that they are driving me kind of crazy..." he says. He hopes to use his father's life insurance money, $10,000 to open a liquor store. Beneatha, his sister, wants to go to medical school. Their mother, Lena Younger, rejects the liquor business. She wants to save money for Beneatha's college education and uses some of it to secure a proper house for the family. Rest of the money she gives to Walter, entrusting him to deposit half of it in the bank for Beneatha's education and his business. Walter sinks rest of the money into his business scheme, only to have it stolen by a con artist. Mr. Lindner, a representative of the all-white neighborhood, tries to buy them out. In despair, Walter contacts Lindner, and almost begs to buy them out. Mama tells him: "Have you cried for that boy today? I don't mean for yourself and for the family 'cause we lost the money. I mean for him: what he been through and what it done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain't through learning – because that ain't the time at all." Walter regains his pride and integrity and decides that the family will take the house after all. He refuses the payoff of the white citizens', anticipating the uncompromising policies of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Hansberry's success was shadowed by accusations that her family were slumlords on Chicago's South Side. To escape the bad publicity, her family moved to Los Angeles. Hansberry had also marital problems and she and Nemiroff quietly divorced in Mexico on March 10, 1964. However, the continued to collaborate on projects. Hansberry's The Drinking Gourd, commissioned in 1959 for the National Broadcasting Company, was not produced. The story, dealing with the American slave system, was considered too controversial for the television. Hansberry wrote it to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War. "It is possible that slavery might destroy itself – but it is more possible that it would these United States first," one of Hansberry's characters, the Soldier/Narrator said in the final words. (Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays: The Drinking Gourd/What Use Are Flowers? by Lorraine Hansberry, 1994, p. 15)

Hansberry managed to complete her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964), set in the New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village, where she had long made her home. This time the protagonist was a Jewish intellectual; the play had only one black character. Sidney Brustein works on the campaign of a local politician, but becomes disillusioned and finds promises of social reform empty. He considers himself a fool, "who believes that death is waste and love is sweet and that the earth turn and men change every day and that rivers run and that people wanna be better than they are and that flowers smell good and that I hurt terribly today, and that hurt is desperation and desperation is – energy and energy can more things..." The play had only modest success on Broadway. By the time it opened at the Longacre Theatre, Hansberry spent much time in hospitals, often needing a wheelchair to get to and from rehearsals. The show closed on the evening of her death.

Her premature death, at the age of thirty-four, cut short her promising career. Lorraine Hansberry died of cancer of the pancreas on January 12, 1965. To Be Young, Gifted and Black, adapted from her writings, was produced Off-Broadway in 1969. It also appeared in book form next year. Les Blancs, a drama set in Africa, was first presented by Konrad Matthaei at the Longacre Theatre, New York City, November 15, 1970, and toured nationally for two years. Hansberry made the first draft of play as early as in 1960. It began to find its shape next year, although she still wrote a number of drafts. After her death, Robert Neminoff continued to work on it as her literary executor and completed a preliminary draft in 1966.

Les Blancs sformed a link from the American scene to the writings of Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and Frantz Fanon, whose work represented an ideological reaction against colonialism and a defense of African culture. The protagonist, Tshembe Matoseh, a black African, has returned to his homeland, and is caught in its struggle for freedom. Tshembe must choose between violent and peaceful efforts. He tells Charlie Morris, an American journalist: "I do not "hate" all white men – but I desperately wish that I did. It would make everything infinitely easier!" Tshembe's own good will is not enough when the fighting starts. "The play also forces a reassessment of the term "terrorist," a meaningless label which masks the desperation and sometimes the inevitability of violence." (Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays: The Drinking Gourd/What Use Are Flowers? by Lorraine Hansberry, 1994, p. 21)

During the Black Arts movement of the 1960s, many African-American artists saw that it's impossible to be successful on Broadway without making political compromises. "So the Broadway theatre is a theatre of reaction whose ethics like its aesthetics reflect the spiritual values of this unholy society," declared Amiri Baraka. (Encyclopedia of the Black Arts Movement, edited by Verner D. Mitchell and Cynthia Davis, 2019, p. 18) The realist form of Hansberry's plays was regarded artistically conservative. However, Baraka later apologized to Hansberry for his harsh critique of Lena Younger in Raisin. Malcolm X critized her for marrying a while man. Hansberry, who at that time had been in the hospital, watching him on television, demanded an apology. 

Frustrated with the slow progress toward racial equality Hansberry began to question the non-violence philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement. Emphasizing similarities between the Third World decolonization struggles and American civil rights conflicts she said in her speech at the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) conference in 1959 : "The unmistakable roots of the universal solidarity of the colored peoples of the world are no longer 'predictable' as they were in my father's time – they are here. And I for one, as a black woman in the United States in the mid-Twentieth Century, feel that I am more typical of the present temperament of my people than not, when I say that I cannot allow the devious purposes of white supremacy to lead me to any conclusion other than what may be to most robust and important one of our time: that the ultimate destiny and aspirations of the African peoples and twenty million American Negroes are inextricably and magnificently bound up together forever." (Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry by Soyica Diggs Colbert, 2021, p. 79)

In 1973, Neminoff and Charlotte Zaltzberg adapted Hansberry's first play into a musical, entitled Raisin. The music was composed by Judd Woldin. Raisin won the Tony Award as the best musical and ran on Broadway for nearly three years. Raisin was revived in 1981, when Claudia McNeil, who had played Lena in the original 1959 production, recreated the role in the musical adaptation. Sidney Poitier has told in his autobiography The Measure of a Man (2000) that he had much troubles with the author in the 1959 production. Poitier criticized Hansberry's idea that the play should evolve from the mother's point of view, and wanted that his character were stronger. However, in the play the heavily built McNeil once slapped her daughter, Beneatha, in the face and nearly knocked her into the second row. Raisin was revived in 1981, when Claudia McNeil recreated the role in the musical adaptation.

For further reading:  The Curtain and the Veil by Helene Keyssar (1981); Lorraine Hansberry by Anne Cheney (1984); Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory (1988); Performing Feminism, ed. by Sue-Ellen Case (1990); Hansberry's Drama by Steven Carter (1991); 'Lorraine Hansberry: Black Voice on Broadway', in Great Black Writers by Steven Otfinoski (1994); Young, Black, and Determined: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry by Pat McKissack, Fredrick L. McKissack (1998); Understanding A Raisin in the Sun by Lynn Domina (1998); Maxnotes a Raisin in the Sun, ed. by Maxine Morrin (2001); African American Dramatists: An A-to-Z Guide, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson (2004); Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History. Volume 2, eds. Richard M.Juang and Noelle Morrisete (2008); Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry (2018); Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry by Soyica Diggs Colbert (2021)

Selected works:

  • A Raisin in the Sun, 1959
    - Films: 1961, prod. Columbia Pictures Corporation, dir. by Daniel Petrie, starring Sidney Poitier (as Walter Lee Younger) , Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee (as Ruth Younger), Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, John Fiedler, Louis Gossett. "The filmed play, which is all, alas, that Raisin is on film, simply stayed up there, on that screen. The unimaginative rigidity of the film locked the audience out of it. Furthermore, the people in Raisin are not the people one goes to the movies to see." (James Baldwin in The Devil Finds Work). Remade for TV in 1989, dir. by Bill Duke, cast: Starletta DuPois (as Ruth Younger), Lou Ferguson, John Fiedler, Danny Glover (as Walter Lee Younger) , Stephen Henderson; Kimble Joyner, Helen Martin, Joseph C. Phillips. Esther Rolle, Kim Yancey. TV play 2008, prod. Sony Pictures Television, Storyline Entertainment, Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group, dir. by Kenny Leon, teleplay by Paris Qualles, starring Sean Combs (as Walter Lee Younger), Audra McDonald (as Ruth Younger), Sanaa Lathan, Phylicia Rashad.
  • What Use Are Flowers?, 1961 (full production in 1994 at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Georgia)
  • The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality, 1964
  • The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, 1965
  • To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, 1969 (published in book form 1970)
    - TV film 1972, dir. by Michael Schultz, cast: Barbara Barrie, Blythe Danner, Ruby Dee, Al Freeman Jr., Lauren Jones, Claudia McNeil , Roy Scheider.
  • Les Blancs, 1970 (adapted by Robert Nemiroff)
  • Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry: The Drinking Gourd. What Use Are Flowers?, 1972 (edited, with critical backgrounds, by Robert Nemiroff, introd. by Julius Lester) 
  • A Raisin in the Sun: The Unfilmed Original Screenplay, 1992 (edited by Robert Nemiroff, foreword by Jewell Handy Gresham-Nemiroff, introduction by Margaret B. Wilkerson, with a commentary by Spike Lee)
  • A Raisin in the Sun: Unabridged and Unadapted from the Original Text: And with Fifteen Related Readings, 2003

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