Hansberry, Lorraine 1930–1965

views updated May 14 2018

Lorraine Hansberry 19301965


At a Glance

Formative Years: College and Journalism

Activism, Marriage, Playwrighting

The End of an Extraordinary Life

Selected writings


Playwright Lorraine Hansberry ushered in a new era of U.S. theater history. She brought to the stage the realistic portrayal of urban, working-class African American life. Writer James Baldwin offered insights into the impact of her work through his description of the staging of her landmark 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun: I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theater, he related in a 1969 introduction to Hansberrys adapted autobiography To Be Young, Gifted and Black. And the reason was that never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black peoples lives been seen on the stage.

But Hansberry did more than just expand the content of realistic stage drama to include African Americans. When her additional writings became available in the 1980s, several literary critics argued for an even broader recognition of her stature. In his 1991 book Hansberrys Drama: Commitment Amid Complexity, Steven R. Carter commented: When Lorraine Hansberry died at thirty-four, she left a wide and rich dramatic heritage, although only a small part of it was visible then, and some parts have yet to become known. When all of her work is brought into view, she should be seen as one of the most important playwrights of this century, not simply on the basis of the one play already considered a classic, but on her collective work.

Hansberrys writings are a synthesis of a variety of artistic trends and genres. She created her own distinctly broad literary vision by incorporating into her works penetrating views of prevailing social conditions, along with aspects of her own life and experiences. The author is said to have endured a lifelong struggle between her upper-middle-class affluence and her unwavering commitment to black liberation and freedom from all forms of oppression. In the New York Times, critic Paula Giddings remarked that Hansberrys body of work reflects elements of the black protest movement of the forties, elements of the universal, non-racial themes predominant during the fifties, and elements of the black nationalist movement of the sixties. And in his commentary on the original, uncut screenplay for the film A Raisin in the Sun, filmmaker Spike Lee wrote: Today, everybody and their mother are talking about Afrocentricity. But Hansberry was writing about it long before it became fashionable.

When Hansberrys first play, A Raisin in the Sun, surpassed plays by noted authors Eugene ONeill, Tennessee Williams, and Archibald MacLeish to win the New York Drama Critics

At a Glance

Born Lorraine Vivian Hansberry, May 19, 1930, in Chicago, IL; died of cancer, January 12, 1965; daughter of Carl Augustus (a real estate entrepreneur) and Nannie (Perry) Hansberry; married Robert Nemiroff, June 20, 1953 (divorced March 10, 1964). Education: Attended University of Wisconsin, 1948-50; studied painting in Mexico, summer 1949; studied art at Roosevelt University, summer 1950; attended New School for Social Research, New York, fall 1950; studied African history and culture with W. E. B. Du Bois, Jefferson School for Social Science, New York, 1953. Politics: Young Progressives of America, 1948-50; various peace and freedom movements, 1950-65.

Freedom (periodical), staff writer, 1951-52, associate editor, 1952-53, occasional contributor, 1953-55; represented Paul Robeson at Intercontinental Peace Congress, Montevideo, Uruguay, 1952; taught at Frederick Douglass School, Harlem, 1952; full-time writer, beginning 1956; completed draft of A Raisin in the Sun, 1957, and wrote screenplay for Columbia Pictures, 1960; commissioned to write slavery drama, The Drinking Gourd, for NBC-TV, 1960; drama canceled by NBC before airing; began working on opera, Toussaint, and several other plays, 1960; mobilized support and fund-raised for Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), 1962; joined James Baldwin and others to meet with Attorney General Robert Kennedy on racial crisis, 1963; wrote The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality, for SNCC, 1964.

Member: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), 1962-65.

Awards: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play of the year, 1959, for A Raisin in the Sun; Screen Writers Guild Award nomination for best screenplay and Cannes Film Festival Award, both 1961, for film version of A Raisin in the Sun.

Circle Award for best play of the year in 1959, she became the first black writer, the fifth woman, and the youngest American playwright ever to receive the honor. Since then, critics such as Frank Rich of the New York Times and David Richards of the Washington Post have recognized the play as an American classic, comparable in Richardss eyes to Arthur Millers Death of a Salesman and Williamss Glass Menagerie.

In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry portrays a black, working-class family in Chicago struggling to achievewith dignityupward social mobility and the freedom to buy property in a wealthy, suburban, white neighborhood. Set in a cramped apartment on Chicagos South Side, the play depicts an experience Hansberry knew. In an address quoted in To Be Young, Gifted and Black, she recounted her knowledge of the time and place of the play:I was born on the Southside of Chicago. I was born black and a female. I was born in a depression after one world war, and came into my adolescence during another. While I was still in my teens the first atom bombs were dropped on human beings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and by the time I was twenty-three years old my government and that of the Soviet Union had entered actively into the worst conflict of nerves in human historythe Cold War.

While Hansberry does not address these particular world events in Raisin, she captures the tensions of the era in which the drama is set. Raisin centers on the tribulations of the Youngers, a black family caught up in a charged conflict of nerves as they attempt to move into Clybourne Park, a white Chicago suburb, in the 1950s. In the play, Karl Lindner of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association tries to pay off the Youngers to keep them from moving into the neighborhood and suggests that members of the family may meet with violence if they follow through with their plans.

This scenario parallels one that Hansberry herself experienced during her youth. Hansberrys parents, Carl Augustus and Nannie Perry Hansberry, earned a considerable amount of wealth in Chicago when Carl rose from bank teller to banking and real estate entrepreneur. His innovation of a small-scale kitchenette for one- or two-bedroom apartments brought him financial success in real estate during the Great Depression. In 1938, after living on the South Side for eight years, the Hansberrys began searching for a larger home. Carl Hansberry soon decided on a house in a predominantly white neighborhood.

While sitting on the porch one day, eight-year-old Lorraine Hansberry and her sister Mamie watched an angry white mob gather in front of their house. The sisters retreated into the living room and were chased by a brick that crashed through a front window and lodged itself in the opposite wall. The brick narrowly missed Lorraine. Anne Cheney, writing in the biography Lorraine Hansberry, quoted the effect of the episode on Hansberry, as later related by the writers husband, Robert Nemiroff: Who knows which part had the greatest impact on the childthe brick? the mother sitting up nights with a gun? the incidents to and from school? the father away in Washington? the fact that the cops did not defend the home but that blacks had to come from outside to do so? the fact that the family was then evicted by the Supreme Court of Illinois?

If Hansberry knew the struggles of the Youngers from her own experiences, she also learned of their dignity during her youth. Hansberrys parents turned their home at South Park Way into a social center for distinguished African American intellectuals and artists. Visitors included noted American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois and singer Paul Robeson, both of whom would later play more significant formative roles in Hansberrys life. And Hansberrys mother ensured that her children were in touch with their roots: she brought the children to visit their grandmother in Tennessee, where they heard stories of how their enslaved grandfather had run away and hidden from his master in the same hills they looked on. Hansberrys father, meanwhile, maintained an active and ambitious lifestyle, evident in his success in business and in his active political life. In 1940, for example, he campaigned door-to-door throughout his home community in what eventually turned out to be an unsuccessful run for U.S. Congress. By the time Hansberry was in elementary school, she knew that she would attend either Howard University, where her sister Mamie later enrolled, or the University of Wisconsin.

Formative Years: College and Journalism

Hansberry decided to pursue a degree at the University of Wisconsin but ended up staying for only two years, from 1948 to 1950. She never felt involved in her overall academic life, but outside of class she fell in love with the theater and began forming her radical political beliefs. Living off campus because housing was unavailable in 1948 for black students, Hansberry commuted each day to attend classes in literature, history, philosophy, art, mathematics, and science. Excited by her humanities classes and bored by the sciences, Hansberry balanced As and Fs to maintain the bare minimum average to remain in school.

Outside of class, she developed a variety of interests. A production of Irish playwright Sean OCaseys Juno and the Paycock inspired her imagination and precipitated both her participation in student theater and her study of the works of modern masters such as Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. In the fall term of her second year, Hansberry became campus chairman of the Young Progressives of America in support of Henry Wallaces 1948 candidacy. Upon his defeat, she grew disaffected with party politics. But Hansberry continued to enjoy her friendships with African students and a number of young campus radicals. Her network of friends in Wisconsin would later become the material for a section of her unfinished autobiographical novel All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors. But social and racial obstacles stood in the path of her success at the University of Wisconsin. In a theater class on set design in her second year, for example, she received a D from a professor who considered her work above average but who said he did not want to encourage a young black woman to enter a white-dominated field. In 1950, Hansberry left the university and headed for New York.

There, the fledgling writer began classes at the New School for Social Research, wrote articles for the Young Progressives of America magazine, and by 1951, joined the staff of Paul Robesons magazine Freedom. As a staff writer for the periodical over the next three years, Hansberry wrote on Africa, women, New York social issues, and the arts. She traveled widely on assignment for the magazine, covering the U.S., Africa, and South America. While writing on social inequities in New York City, Hansberry developed into what Cheney called an intellectual revolutionary. Meanwhile, her writing skills improved. Shuttling about the cityfrom the Waldorf-Astoria to Broadway back to Harlem schoolsLorraine Hansberry did sharpen her journalistic tools, Cheney wrote in Lorraine Hansberry. She learned to interview easily; she started to sift important figures from mazes of paper; she began to penetrate the facades of people and events.

Activism, Marriage, Playwrighting

While a journalist for Freedom, Hansberry also developed public speaking skills by teaching classes at Frederick Douglass School in Harlem and by attending and speaking at political rallies. At a protest of the exclusion of black players from the basketball team at New York University in 1951, Hansberry met her future husband, Robert Nemiroff, a white, Jewish graduate student in literature at the university. Hansberry worked for a while in the Greenwich Village restaurant owned by Nemiroffs family. The two developed a close emotional and intellectual relationship, and on June 20, 1953, they were married.

During the following few years Hansberry worked at a variety of jobs, including that of typist, secretary, recreation leader for the Federation for the Handicapped, and occasional contributor for Freedom before it went bankrupt in 1955. Nemiroff, meanwhile, had graduated with his masters degree from NYU; he became first a reader and copywriter for Sears Readers Club and later promotions director of Avon Books. Together they absorbed the rich cultural milieu of Greenwich Village, remained active on picket lines and at all-night vigils for desegregation, and enjoyed the company of friends. Hansberry would later write about these times in her play The Sign in Sidney Brusteins Window.

In 1956, Robert Nemiroff and a friend, Burt DLugoff, wrote a song together. Hansberry suggested the title, Cindy, Oh, Cindy and the song became a hit, earning $100,000 in 1956. This income freed both Hansberry and Nemiroff to write full time. Nemiroff wrote a play, Postmark Zero, performed on Broadway in 1965, while Hansberry penned a number of works, including A Raisin in the Sun, The Sign in Sidney Brusteins Window, which was produced in 1964, and several more in between.

As early as 1959, Hansberry began researching for The Sign in Sidney Brusteins Window. In 1960, she imagined the basic plot of her play Les Blancs, adapted for production in 1970 by Robert Nemiroff. Also in 1960, Hansberry wrote the final script of the television series The Drinking Gourd. The program was commissioned by NBC-TV as part of a special series on the Civil War, but network executives eventually decided it was too violent and divisive for television. It was canceled before it ever aired. In 1961, Hansberry envisioned the premise of What Use Are Flowers?, a fantasy for television, but recast it as a play in 1962. Also in 1961, she began carrying out a debate about race with writer Norman Mailer through the pages of the Village Voice. Around the same time, Hansberry and Nemiroff moved to a comfortable house modeled on Frank Lloyd Wrights architecture in Croton-on-Hudson, a 60-minute train ride from downtown Manhattan. Hansberry would live there until her death in 1965.

The End of an Extraordinary Life

By 1963, Hansberrys strength began to deteriorate, and she discovered that she had been stricken with cancer. The exact cause was never determined, but medical researchers could not rule out emotional strain as a contributory factor. Meanwhile, Hansberry published a documentary history of the civil rights movement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), entitled The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality. She also worked on a number of projects that remained unfinished at the time of her death, including an epic opera titled Toussaint, about Toussaint LOuverture, the late eighteenth-century liberator of Haiti. All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors, an unpublished autobiographical novel, also remained incomplete upon her death. In addition, Hansberry noted ideas for a number of other plays, including one about the Pharaoh Akhnaton, another on eighteenth-century writer Mary Wollstonecraft, still another on Native Americans called Laughing Boy, and one on black American fiction writer Charles Chestnutfs novel The Marrow of Tradition.

The tensions of publicitycombined, say some Sources, with Hansberrys confused sexual identityput a strain on her marriage to Nemiroff, and in March of 1964 they privately obtained a divorce in Mexico. Still, Nemiroff worked as producer of Brustein and stayed with Hansberry in the hospital whenever he was not working on the play. Hansberrys cancer had advanced and she was hospitalized from October of 1964 to January of 1965, when she died. Hansberry chose her ex-husband to be the executor of her literary estate. For the rest of his life, Nemiroff devoted himself to publicizing her works. To that end, he wrote introductions for A Raisin in the Sun, saw to the plays publication, andediting Hansberrys own writingscreated the drama To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words.

Over six hundred people attended Lorraine Hansberrys funeral in Harlem on January 15, 1965. The presiding reverend, Eugene Callender, recited messages from James Baldwin and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Cheney reprinted the end of Kings letter, which read: Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.

Selected writings


The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality, Simon & Schuster, 1964.

To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, introduction by James Baldwin, Prentice-Hall, 1969.


A Raisin in the Sun, opened in New Haven and Philadelphia, moved to Chicago, then produced on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, March 11, 1959; published by New American Library, 1961.

Les Blancs, single scene staged at Actors Studio Workshop, New York, 1963; two-act play produced at Longacre Theater, New York City, 1970.

The Sign in Sidney Brusteins Window, produced on Broadway, 1964; published by Random House, 1965.

Lorraine Hansberrys A Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brusteins Window New American Library, 1966.

To Be Young, Gifted and Black, adapted for the stage by Robert Nemiroff, first produced at the Cherry Lane Theater, January 2, 1969; acting edition published by Samuel French, 1971.

Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry, edited by Robert Nemiroff, introduction by Julius Lester, Random House, 1972, reprinted, New American Library, 1983.

Lorraine Hansberry: The Collected Last Plays (Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd, What Use Are Flowers?), edited by Robert Nemiroff, New American Library, 1983.


A Raisin in the Sun: The Unfilmed Original Screenplay, edited by Robert Nemiroff, Plume, 1992.

All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors, an unfinished novel.

Author of about two dozen articles for Freedom, 1951-55, and over 25 essays for other publications, including the Village Voice, New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Freedomways, Mademoiselle, Ebony, Playbill, Show, Theatre Arts, Black Scholar, Monthly Review, and Annals of Psychotherapy.



Abramson, Doris E., Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre: 1925-1959, Columbia University Press, 1969, pp. 165-266.

Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.

Carter, Steven R., Hansberrys Drama: Commitment Amid Complexity, University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Cheney, Anne, Lorraine Hansberry, Twayne, 1984.

Davis, Arthur P., From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900-1960, Howard University Press, pp. 203-07.

Hansberry, Lorraine, To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, introduction by James Baldwin, Penguin Books, 1969.

Hansberry, Lorraine, A Raisin in the Sun: The Unfilmed Original Screenplay, edited by Robert Nemiroff, foreword by Jewell Handy Gresham-Nemiroff, commentary by Spike Lee, Penguin Books USA, 1992.


Black American Literature Forum, Spring 1983, pp. 8-13.

Commentary, June 1959, pp. 527-30.

Freedomways (special issue), 19:4, 1979.

New Yorker, May 9, 1959.

New York Times, January 13, 1965; October 5, 1983, p. C24.

New York Times Review of Books, March 31, 1991, p. 25.

Theatre Journal, December 1986, pp. 441-52.

Time, January 22, 1965.

Village Voice, August 12, 1959, pp. 7-8.

Washington Post, November 17, 1986, p. D1.

Additional information available on sound recording Lorraine Hansberry Speaks Out: Art and the Black Revolution, Caedmon, 1972.

Nicholas S. Patti

Hansberry, Lorraine

views updated May 09 2018


HANSBERRY, Lorraine (b. 19 May 1930;d. 12 January 1965), writer, activist.

Lorraine Hansberry was the youngest of four children born to Carl A. Hansberry and Nanny Perry Hansberry on Chicago's South Side. Hansberry's formative years were spent in the social and political milieu of the black middle class: a comfortable material existence coupled with a real commitment to continued political agitation for productive change in the racial climate of the United States. In 1938 her family challenged Chicago's discriminatory real estate practices in a test case for integrated housing, a case that ultimately culminated in a victorious 1940 U.S. Supreme Court decision ( Hansberry v. Lee) . Hansberry's uncle, Leo Hansberry, was also a strong influence on her ideological beliefs. He had a distinguished career as a professor of African history at Howard University and is often credited with helping to shape Hansberry's Pan-African and global perspectives on the black liberation movement.

As a youth, Hansberry came into regular contact with celebrated artists and activists such as Paul Robeson, Walter White, and Duke Ellington, and as an adult, with literary and political luminaries such as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes. From her childhood, when her family became a national test case for integration, to the time she wrote her award-winning play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) that addressed this American dilemma, Hansberry was an integral part of the social fabric of black activism.

As a student at the University of Wisconsin, Hansberry frequented the theater, where she sat in on a rehearsal of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, which she later claimed was the initial inspiration behind her ambition to become a playwright. In 1950 Hansberry left college and relocated to New York City, where she worked as a reporter for Robeson's radical black newspaper Freedom. Hansberry wrote reviews and essays, and became a respected associate editor of the newspaper during her three-year tenure there; she also assumed an active role in civil rights agitation during this period.

Hansberry resigned from the paper in 1953 when she married Robert Nemiroff; that same year she also began to devote her energies to playwrighting. She maintained a lasting intellectual and artistic relationship with Nemiroff despite their subsequent divorce, during which Hansberry came out as a lesbian. Nemiroff was later criticized for his editing of her writings on these subjects after her death.

For Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun offered her the opportunity to translate for the dramatic stage the passionate struggle of black communities globally, one with which post–World War II America now grappled: racial discrimination. A Raisin in the Sun depicts the Youngers, an African American family residing on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s at a transitional moment in their lives: the senior Mrs. Younger is about to receive a check for ten thousand dollars from the deceased Mr. Younger's insurance policy. Much of the dramatic development of the characters revolves around the question of how best to spend this money; each member of the family nurtures a certain dream of success. Ultimately a good portion of the monies is used to purchase a house in a neighborhood in which the white residents practice a new urban northern

form of racism, one that exhibits a covert professional manner: a neighborhood improvement society attempts to buy out the Youngers before they move into the neighborhood. Crafted upon aesthetics of naturalism theatre, a form of realism, Hansberry's play foregrounds the historical realities of southern migration, generational conflicts, and the development of black individuality within the collective family. Her play is an impactful theatrical exploration of a black family's response to historical change, gender roles, and the economic oppression of segregation. The play became an immediate success, making Hansberry the youngest playwright and the first black ever to win the New York Drama Critics Circle award for Best Play of the Year. She was also the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway and then later purchased for its movie rights, in this instance by Columbia Pictures. Hansberry's instant celebrity status led to the birth of drama movements such as the revolutionary black theater enclave of the 1960s and enabled her to lend her writing talents to civil rights organizations.

At the time of Hansberry's death in 1965, her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window was having a notso-successful run; she was also putting the finishing touches on an unpublished play, The Arrival of Mr. Todog, a satire of Samuel Beckett, and had begun work on a drama based on the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, an eighteenth-century feminist.

Hansberry's contribution to lesbian culture may be linked to her role in the black civil rights movement and the road it paved for the women's liberation movement of the 1960s. Additionally, Hansberry wrote unpublished essays and letters in which she began to detail her vision of lesbian and radical feminism. Among her known writings on these topics were several letters published in the Ladder, a predominately white mid-twentieth-century lesbian publication, in which she made incisive observations about the intersections of homophobia and misogyny, and the economic and psychic pressure on lesbians to marry. As Hansberry committed her ideas on gender and sexuality to paper and public view, she terminated her marriage and asserted her own lesbianism. Unfortunately, Hansberry's life was cut tragically short when she died of cancer at the age of thirty-four.


Cheney, Anne. Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Nemiroff, Robert . To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. Adapted by Robert Nemiroff. With original drawings and art by Lorraine Hansberry. Introduction by James Baldwin. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Sinfield, Alan. Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

Laura A. Harris

see alsotheater and performance.

Hansberry, Lorraine

views updated May 23 2018


Born 19 May 1930, Chicago, Illinois; died 12 January 1965, New York, New York

Daughter of Carl A. and Nannie Perry Hansberry; married Robert Nemiroff, 1953

Youngest of four children in a prosperous Republican, black family, Lorraine Hansberry spent two years at the University of Wisconsin, then went to New York City, where she studied African history under W. E. B. Du Bois and worked on a radical monthly, Freedom, published by Paul Robeson. In her words, her editor, Louis E. Burnham, taught her "all racism is rotten, black or white, that everything is political, and that people tend to be indescribably beautiful and uproariously funny," tenets that are themes of her entire oeuvre.

By 1959 she had attained fame as the youngest American and the only black dramatist to win the Best Play of the Year award, for A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Hansberry continued to write and work until her untimely death from cancer during the run of The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964). In addition to her dramatic works, essays, and journals, she made a significant contribution to the black movement by writing the text for a photographic journal, The Movement: A Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (1964), published shortly before she died.

A landmark in American theater, A Raisin in the Sun ran for 530 performances, toured extensively, and has been published and produced in over 30 countries. Its title and theme are based on a poem by Langston Hughes that questions, "What happens to a dream deferred?" The play derives its power from the inevitable conflicts arising because each member of the Younger family has a different dream, an individual "plan" for escaping the dreary life of the Chicago ghetto in which they live. To Beneatha, the daughter, this means becoming a doctor. For Walter Lee, the son, the dream is to own his own business. But for Lena, the matriarch, the first order of business is to move out of their stultifying environment so the family may live and grow in dignity. The wherewithal to fulfill these dreams is a $10,000 insurance policy left by Lena's husband, who had literally "worked himself to death."

After putting part of the money down on a house in a "white neighborhood" because it's a good value, Lena entrusts the remainder to her son—half to be banked for Beneatha's education, half for his business venture. Walter Lee, however, is bilked out of the entire sum by a black partner and so almost accepts the white "welcoming" committeeman's offer to pay the Youngers for staying out of their neighborhood. Ultimately shamed by Lena, he decides against this cowardly solution, and the play ends as the family prepares to move.

Two facts are noteworthy. Hansberry doesn't assert it will be any easier for the Youngers to live in their new neighborhood than it was in fact for the Hansberrys to live in Englewood, Illinois, after they moved out of the Chicago ghetto. Nor does she arrange matters to make the white men the only villains. As in all her work, Hansberry shows that despite special feelings for her own people, she remains objective about race, with "good" and "bad" people in a spectrum totally unrelated to color.

Hansberry's second commercially produced play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, features a white protagonist, an engagé whose statements that he has always been "a fool who believes that death is waste and love is sweet" and that "hurt is desperation and desperation is energy and energy can MOVE things" sound like the playwright's voice verbatim. Criticism by some reviewers on the basis that the characters are merely personifications of conflicting ways to view the world meant early closure, before giving the public a chance to estimate its value. Through Herculean efforts—donations and advertisements sponsored by distinguished people in the American theater—it remained open until over 80,000 people had seen the production. At Hansberry's death, the sign came down in New York, but the play was successful on tour and has had subsequent productions in a dozen countries, including a particularly distinguished one in Paris with Simone Signoret as translator and producer.

To Hansberry, her most important play was Les Blancs (1972), an accurate foretelling of what has happened in Africa in terms of black revolution. When produced posthumously (1970), there were cries of antiwhite bias, despite the fact it deals as fairly with opportunistic blacks as with white capitalists. In a similar vein, Hansberry's 90-minute television drama, The Drinking Gourd (1960), commissioned by NBC for the Civil War centennial, was shelved as "too controversial," although many of its scenes are forerunners of those done on television in such programs as Alex Haley's Roots.

Throughout her life, Hansberry kept diaries, journals, and letters and wrote many essays for newspapers and magazines. Bits and pieces of these, along with scenes from her plays, are well blended by Robert Nemiroff in To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (1969), a two-act drama. It was published as a book with extensive background notes and an introduction by James Baldwin.

This playwright's influence in the theater in terms of black performers, as well as black audiences—who saw themselves truthfully presented onstage for the first time in A Raisin in the Sun—was far greater than it might seem from the number of her works. Actually, since her death, there has been a growing interest in this woman whose philosophy was summed up in her address to young black writers. She said: "What I write is not based on the assumption of idyllic possibilities or innocent assessments of the true nature of life, but, rather, on my own personal view that, posing one against the other, I think that the human race does command its own destiny and that that destiny can eventually embrace the stars."


Abramson, D. E., Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925-1959 (1969). Bigsby, C. W. E., Confrontation and Commitment: A Study of Contemporary American Drama, 1959-1966 (1968). Carter, S. R., Hansberry's Drama: Commitment Amid Complexity (1991). Cheney, A., Lorraine Hansberry (1984). Brown-Guillory, E., Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America (1988).

Reference works:

CA (1971). CB (Sept. 1959, Feb. 1965). Black Theatre USA (1974). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Ebony (18 Sept. 1963). Freedomways (issue devoted to Hansberry, 1979). Newsweek (20 Apr. 1959). New York Amsterdam News (29 Jan. 1972). NY (9 May 1959). NYT (29 Nov. 1970). SR (31 Dec. 1966). Time (10 Jan. 1969). Vogue (June 1959). Lorraine Hansberry: The Black Experience in the Creation of Drama (video, 1975).


Hansberry, Lorraine

views updated May 29 2018

Hansberry, Lorraine

May 19, 1930
January 12, 1965

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry was the youngest child of a nationally prominent African-American family. Houseguests during her childhood included Paul Robeson and Duke Ellington. Hansberry became interested in theater while in high school, and in 1948 she went on to study drama and stage design at the University of Wisconsin. Instead of completing her degree, however, she moved to New York, worked at odd jobs, and wrote. In 1959 her first play, A Raisin in the Sun, was produced and was both a critical and commercial success. It broke the record for longest-running play by a black author and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Hansberry was the first African American and the youngest person ever to win that award. The play, based on an incident in the author's own life, tells the story of a black family that attempts to move into a white neighborhood in Chicago. Critics praised Hansberry's ability to deal with a racial issue and at the same time explore the American dream of freedom and the search for a better life. The play was turned into a film in 1961, and then was adapted as a musical, Raisin, which won a Tony Award in 1974.

Hansberry's second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, focuses on white intellectual political involvement. Less successful than A Raisin in the Sun, it closed after a brief run at the time of Hansberry's death from cancer in 1965. After her death, Hansberry's former husband, Robert B. Nemiroff, whom she had married in 1953, edited her writings and plays, and produced two volumes: To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1969) and Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry (1972). Her unproduced screenplay for A Raisin in the Sun was published in 1992. To Be Young, Gifted and Black was presented as a play and became the longest-running Off-Broadway play of the 19681969 season.

See also Drama


Johnson, Brett. "Recasting a Classic: Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun 45 Years Later." Essence 35, no. 12 (June 2004): 126.

Keppel, Ben. The Work of Democracy: Ralph Bunche, Kenneth B. Clarke, Lorraine Hansberry, and the Cultural Politics of Race. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995.

"Lorraine Hansberry." Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: The New Consciousness, 19411968. Detroit, Mich: Gale, 1987.

lily phillips (1996)
Updated bibliography

Hansberry, Lorraine

views updated May 17 2018