Lorraine Hansberry was a profound thinker that contributed extremely to American theater becoming one of the country’s most-produced plays. On top of that, she became the first black woman to perform on Broadway. A Raisin in the Sun has been published and produced in about thirty languages abroad and in thousands of productions in the United States, becoming an American classic.
The prejudice that Hansberry and her family suffered, shaped the story of A Raisin in the Sun. The granddaughter of a freed slave, and the youngest by seven years of four children, Lorraine Vivian Hansberry 3rd was born on May 19, 1930. Hansberry’s father was a successful real estate broker, and her mother was a schoolteacher. When Hansberry was seven, her family bought a house at 6140 S. Rhodes Avenue where restrictive covenants prohibited white property owners from selling to blacks. White mobs threatened the Hansberry’s, spitting on and cursing at Lorraine and her siblings. A chunk of cement came flying through a window at the house, narrowly missing Lorraine and landing in the living room wall.
Hansberry was born in Chicago and grew up on the South Side before moving to New York. She graduated from Englewood High School, where she first became interested in theater. After studying painting in Chicago and Mexico, Hansberry moved to New York in 1950 to begin her career as a writer. Prematurely dying of cancer in 1965, at the age of 34, Hansberry had a short life for someone with so much talent and promise. In addition to plays, she had written fiction and essays, demonstrating her intellectual skills, and created wonderful and unique characters.
As a social analyst, Hansberry was Marxist, not Stalinist; as a writer, she was an artist. As a playwright, Hansberry had the natural ability to write vivid dialogue that simultaneously revealed character and promoted ideas. 'Whatever is said,' she once wrote, 'must be said through the living arguments of human beings, with themselves, with the abstractions which seem to them to be 'their society.''
Feminism and gay rights were never explicit in any of Hansberry's plays, but issues of identity for women and homosexuals are suggested in several of them. Hansberry's comment about 'strict separatist notions' accentuates her commitment to articulating the common interests of oppressed groups. 'It is true that all human questions overlap,' she wrote. 'Men continue to misinterpret the second-rate status of women as implying a privileged status for themselves; heterosexuals think the same way about homosexuals; gentiles about Jews; whites about blacks; haves about have-nots.'
The Sign-in Sidney Brustein’s Window and Les Blancs both deal with sexuality. They deal with interracial intimacy, issues that are much less accentuated nowadays although they still exist.
Les Blancs is a play that was adapted and completed after Hansberry’s death by her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff. Les Blancs was initially produced on Broadway in 1970, eleven years after her A Raisin in the Sun became the first play by an African American woman to open on the Great White Way. Hansberry had started drafting Les Blancs, however, nearly a decade earlier amid the various struggles for a black freedom that began to proliferate across the globe during the 1950s and intensified in the '60s. Hopeful that the project could offer important insights about those movements and, indeed, inspire social action, she labored tirelessly on the script, reshaping and revising it even as she battled pancreatic cancer. The drama nevertheless was still a work in progress when the artist-activist died in 1965 Hansberry’s former husband and literary executor Robert Nemiroff, who assumed responsibility for realizing her vision, had to draw on old notes, outlines, and drafts to fashion the work into a performable text.
Other works include The Drinking Gourd, a TV movie script about slavery that was commissioned and then rejected for being too powerful. The story depicts monstrous events that cause a submissive woman to act aggressively. What Use Are Flowers? is an anti-war play that takes place after a nuclear holocaust wherein a dying hermit must impart all of his knowledge to the only other known human survivors, six boys, and girls. Nemiroff also compiled Hansberry's writings, speeches, and letters into the patchwork play To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (1969).
Hansberry's unpublished writings directly reveal her feminist sentiments. She encouraged women to think socially instead of personally and to see their connection with other oppressed groups. In a letter submitted anonymously to The Ladder in 1957, she speaks of how female homosexuals are less likely to stand up for their rights than gay men because women 'are not considered definitively human.' And while in the yet-unpublished essay 'Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex: An American Commentary' she argues that 'if by some miracle women should not ever utter a single protest against their condition there would still exist among men those who could not endure in peace until her liberation had been achieved.
A Raisin in the Sun is story is semi-autobiographical in its portrayal of a black family living in Chicago and their decision to buy a house in a white neighborhood. After the play's rejection by several producers who believed that 'white audiences aren't interested in a Negro play', Hansberry read it to her friends, Burt D'Lugoff and Philip Rose. Impressed, Rose decided to produce the play. The cast included Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Lou Gossett, and Ivan Dixon; the director was Lloyd Richards. The 1959 tryouts in New Haven, Philadelphia, and Chicago were well received and the play opened in Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959. A Raisin in the Sun proved to be a hit with 530 performances (66 weeks) and went on to a successful tour during the 1960-1961 season. The first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway with a largely black cast, A Raisin in the Sun won the New York Critics Circle Award as the best drama of the year as well as the first play on Broadway to be directed by a black director in more than fifty years.
A Raisin in the Sun has the most substantial body of material in the collection. The files document the various media in which the play was produced; stage, movie, and television productions, with production material for each venue. The play has evoked a great amount of interest from the general public and scholars since it was first produced. As such, it has been the subject of criticism by intellectuals of all races and nationalities.
To conclude, Lorraine Hansberry contributed immensely to theatre and society. Hansberry gained respect and fought prejudice as much as she could, she was an amazing playwriter and activist, a pure thinker.
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