Hansberry, Lorraine: Introduction
LORRAINE HANSBERRY: INTRODUCTION
The first African American and the youngest woman to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Hansberry is best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959). The story of a black working-class family and their decision to move into a white neighborhood, the play helped pioneer the acceptance of black drama by Broadway producers and audiences. Although dismissed by some militant blacks as assimilationist, A Raisin in the Sun nevertheless garnered praise for its sensitive and revealing portrait of a black family in America. It has also attracted attention for its depiction of strong African American female characters who strive against a male-dominated society.
Hansberry was born into a middle-class family on Chicago's south side in 1930. Around the age of seven, Hansberry and her family moved into a restricted white neighborhood, deliberately violating the city's "covenant laws" that legally sanctioned housing discrimination. When ordered to abide by the law, Hansberry's family, with the help of the NAACP, took their case to the Illinois Supreme Court, which struck down the legislation as unconstitutional. During litigation, white neighbors continually harassed the Hansberry family; in one incident, a brick thrown through their living room window barely missed Hansberry's head.
In high school, Hansberry became interested in theater. She attended the University of Wisconsin, where she became further acquainted with the works of such distinguished playwrights as August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, and Sean O'Casey. She studied painting in Chicago and abroad for a time but moved to New York City in 1950 to begin her career as a writer. Politically active in New York, Hansberry wrote for Paul Robeson's Freedom magazine and participated in various liberal crusades, particularly the civil rights and women's movements.
During a protest at New York University, she met Robert Nemiroff, a white writer and himself a pursuer of liberal politics. A romance developed, and in 1953 they married. Nemiroff encouraged Hansberry in her writing efforts, going so far as to salvage her discarded pages from the wastebasket. One night in 1957, while the couple was entertaining a group of friends, they read a scene from Hansberry's play in progress, A Raisin in the Sun. The impact left by the reading prompted Hansberry, Nemiroff, and friends to push for the completion, financing, and production of the drama within the next several months.
A Raisin in the Sun made its New York debut in March 1959 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. It was the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway and the first to be directed by a black director in more than fifty years. When A Raisin in the Sun won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Hansberry became the youngest writer and the first black artist ever to receive the honor, competing that year with such theater luminaries as Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, and Archibald MacLeish. In June 1959 Hansberry was named the "most promising playwright" of the season by Variety's poll of New York drama critics. A Raisin in the Sun ran for 530 performances. Shortly thereafter, in 1961, a film version of the drama was released, starring Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil. Hansberry won a special award at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for a Screen Writers Guild award for her screenplay.
Hansberry then began work on a play about a Jewish intellectual who vacillates between social commitment and paralyzing disillusionment. Entitled The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964), the play ran on Broadway for 101 performances despite mixed reviews and poor sales. The play closed on January 12, 1965, the day Hansberry died of cancer at the age of thirty-four.
Hansberry originally named her best-known play The Crystal Stair after a line in the Langston Hughes poem "Mother to Son," but she later changed its title to A Raisin in the Sun, an image taken from another Hughes piece, "A Dream Deferred." Set in a modest apartment in south Chicago after World War II, A Raisin in the Sun focuses on the Younger family: Lena, the matriarch; her son Walter Lee, a chauffeur; her daughter Beneatha, a college student; Walter Lee's wife, Ruth; and their son, Travis. In the opening scene, Ruth rouses her family on an early Friday morning. Ruth is described by Hansberry as "a settled woman" whose disappointment in life clearly shows in her demeanor. Walter, conversely, is a lean, intense man whose voice always contains "a quality of indictment." His second question of the morning—"Check come today?"—immediately reveals the central conflict of the play. Walter's father has died, leaving a ten-thousand-dollar insurance policy to Lena. Walter plans to persuade his mother to give him the money so that he, along with two other men, can invest it in a liquor store. Lena, however, uses part of the money as a down payment on a house in another neighborhood. Yet when a white representative from the neighborhood to which the family plans to move offers to buy back their home, Walter refuses. He submerges his materialistic aspirations—for a time, at least—and rallies to support the family's dream. The play ends as the Youngers close the door to their apartment and head for their new home.
Although Hansberry and her husband divorced in 1964, Nemiroff remained dedicated to the playwright and her work. Appointed her literary executor, he collected Hansberry's writings after her death in the informal biography To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words (1969). The work presents a collection of portions of her letters, poetry, speeches, essays, and dramatic scenes, accompanied by drawings and sketches. Nemiroff also edited and published her last three plays. Les Blancs, produced in 1970, is a psychological and social drama about a European-educated African who returns home to protest colonialism, the eponymous title piece in Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry (1972). This collection includes two other plays, The Drinking Gourd, a black woman's story of slavery and emancipation, and What Use Are Flowers? a fable about an aging hermit who, in a ravaged world, tries to impart to children his remembrances of a past civilization.
Hansberry is best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun, which is ranked with Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Tennessee Williams's Glass Menagerie, and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night as a classic in American theater. Recently the play has attracted a new generation of admirers. In 1984 Nemiroff published an expanded, twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the play. With the restoration of scenes and text originally removed from the first production, A Raisin in the Sun was also adapted for television in 1989, starring Danny Glover, Esther Rolle, and Kim Yancey. Feminist critics have applauded Hansberry's portrayal of strong female characters in the play, women who challenge stereotypes of African American women at that time. Moreover, feminist commentators have noted Hansberry's recurring concern with the role of women in theater and society and her activism concerning equal rights for women during her lifetime. Overall, Hansberry has been acknowledged as a gifted playwright and an articulate and strong supporter of the civil rights and women's movements.