The Archive: Lorraine Hansberry – challenging the all-white American dream
Julius Lester was effusive in his praise: “Her effect on others was like the seepage of rain into the earth, nourishing roots which only the rain knew were there.” Lorraine Hansberry was the writer in question – essayist, activist, playwright and the first black woman ever to have a play staged on Broadway, when A Raisin in the Sun opened in March 1959. She died just four years later of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34.
An extraordinary success when it opened, with Sydney Poitier among the cast, the play ran for 530 performances and was made into an iconic film. Dawn Walton, whose production of A Raisin in the Sun for Eclipse Theatre is currently touring the UK, calls the film “black history, a black entertainment point of reference”. The play beat Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, with six votes to five, for the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play in 1959.
The universal acclaim that welcomed the play on Broadway was mismatched against tepid critical response in the UK. The Times called it a “conventional, plodding drama about racial relations”, though The Stage looked on the play more kindly, saying at the time: “After many years of being looked upon as little more than material for comic relief, the Negro is slowly but surely coming into his own in the theatre.”
This optimism may have been misplaced. Hansberry wrote during an extraordinary moment in civil rights politics, of which she was an integral part, and the fruits of that movement’s efforts are incalculable. But current debates raging about lack of diversity in the arts show how much further there is to go. Indeed, in this country, productions of A Raisin in the Sun are rare. Aside from a revival with Don Warrington in 1989, a 2001 production at the Young Vic, and a 2006 production for which Noma Dumezweni won an Olivier, its performance history is sparse.
It’s about the Younger family, three generations living in a tiny apartment on Chicago’s South Side, awaiting a cheque for $10,000. When it arrives, they buy a house which is in a predominantly white area. The plot echoes Hansberry’s own life: she grew up on the South Side, her father bought property in a white area, which broke restrictive covenant laws that prevented black people from living in white neighbourhoods. Days after they moved in a brick was thrown through the window, barely missing Lorraine. Hansberry’s father fought back, and his case reached the Supreme Court. The outcome was that restrictive covenants were outlawed.
Hansberry skewered the illusion of the American dream, questioning a society that taught its citizens to worship material possessions, that measured success in terms of size of house and make of car, and a society that then denied the possibility of pursuit to its non-white citizens. There is a deep paradox, unanswerable and so left unanswered by Hansberry, at the centre of Raisin: “As blacks acquire more and more of America’s material offerings, are they, too, going to be transformed by their acquisitions into mindless consumers like the majority of whites?”
But the extraordinary fame that A Raisin in the Sun brought blazed only for a moment. Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, was according to Julius Lester in a collection of Hansberry’s unfinished works “hardly understood by most critics”. It was about white characters and Lester claims “it was a risk of the highest order for the most eminent living black playwright to take. It would only disorient and confuse critics and playgoers to have to confront a black writing about something other than ‘the problem’.”
In just four years, said her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff, she had been almost forgotten. Nemiroff collated and completed some of the unfinished work – including Hansberry’s final play Les Blancs, about to be staged at the National in a production directed by Yael Farber. “It’s her true masterpiece,” says Farber, “it hasn’t had the hour that it deserves.” Indeed, there has only been one major production of it in this country, at the Royal Exchange in 2001.
Les Blancs is a far cry from A Raisin in the Sun: it is both at the end of Hansberry’s mastery of realism and the beginning of an exploration into expressionism, an unsettling exploration of colonialism in a fictional African country. It sprang from a fascination with Africa, which began after seeing newsreels of the Italian conquest of Ethiopia when she was five. The title was prompted by Jean Genet’s Les Negres (The Blacks) and Hansberry’s concern his play was “a conversation between white men about themselves”. Hansberry considered this her most important piece, and worked on drafts as she lay dying in hospital. But she never had the chance to finish it. Farber sees her responsibility as “deeply listening to what that silenced voice was trying to say”.
Her stepdaughter and literary executor Joi Gresham says: “Lorraine was incapable of writing an unredeemable character.” Even the final note in her journal affirms this optimism and trust: “If anything should happen – before ’tis done – may I trust that all commas and periods will be placed and someone will complete my thoughts. This last should be the least difficult since there are so many who think as I do.” Passion and poetry pervade all her work – the elegant rhythms of fierce beauty reach across the decades. “As a dramatist,” Lester says, “Lorraine Hansberry had the gift of making us see the extraordinary in those who society had decreed were merely ordinary.”
“One cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart,” she wrote, “and not know and react to the miseries that afflict this world… the human race does command its own destiny and that destiny can eventually embrace the stars.” Her plays affirm that theatre really can change the world. But only part of the effort is the writer’s: the rest is up to the audience.
“Though it be a thrilling and marvellous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times,” said Hansberry, referring to the epithet bestowed on her by Nina Simone, “it is doubly so – doubly dynamic – to be young, gifted and black.” That epigram contains within it both joy and tragedy. Joy because one cannot change one’s skin colour, nor erase one’s gift; those are qualities to embrace and celebrate. Tragedy because it was Hansberry’s sad fate, dying at the age of only 34, always to be young.
If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15.
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