Hansberry’s Debuts on Broadway Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun portrayed the impact of racism on African Americans and became one of the first plays by an African American woman to achieve artistic and commercial success.

Summary of Event

On March 11, 1959, after playing in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Haven, Connecticut, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (pr., pb. 1959) opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City. The play instantly met with rave reviews from both black and white critics and became a quick financial success. It ran for 530 performances, setting a new record for the longest-running Broadway play written by a black American. It was also the first play written by a black woman to be performed on Broadway. Raisin in the Sun, A (Hansberry) Theater;drama African Americans;writers African Americans;performers [kw]Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun Debuts on Broadway (Mar. 11, 1959)[Hansberrys] [kw]Raisin in the Sun Debuts on Broadway, Hansberry’s A (Mar. 11, 1959) [kw]Broadway, Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun Debuts on (Mar. 11, 1959) Raisin in the Sun, A (Hansberry) Theater;drama African Americans;writers African Americans;performers [g]North America;Mar. 11, 1959: Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun Debuts on Broadway[06080] [g]United States;Mar. 11, 1959: Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun Debuts on Broadway[06080] [c]Theater;Mar. 11, 1959: Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun Debuts on Broadway[06080] Hansberry, Lorraine Richards, Lloyd Nemiroff, Robert Poitier, Sidney McNeil, Claudia[Macneil, Claudia] Dee, Ruby Sands, Diana

A Raisin in the Sun won the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle Award New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for the year’s best play over Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, and Archibald MacLeish’s J. B. At age twenty-eight, Hansberry was the youngest playwright to receive the award. A Raisin in the Sun was also instrumental in furthering the careers of the play’s actors and its director, Lloyd Richards. Moreover, the play’s commercial success enabled other black playwrights to get their work produced and gave Hansberry a visibility that made her an important voice in the theater. She spoke and wrote prolifically about theater and the arts, society and politics, and equal rights for blacks, women, and gays and lesbians.

A “living-room drama,” the play focuses on the financial and emotional struggles of three generations of a black family in late 1950’s Chicago. The play’s central conflict begins when Lena Younger receives a ten thousand dollar check from her deceased husband’s insurance company. Walter Lee, her son, who works as a chauffeur, wants to use the money to finance a liquor store, while Beneatha, Lena’s daughter, wants to go to medical school.

After Lena takes some of the money and puts a down payment on a house in an all-white neighborhood—an emotional and economic decision, not a political one—she gives the rest to Walter, entrusting him to deposit half of it in the bank for Beneatha’s education and to use the rest for his business. Walter, though, gives the money to a con artist, who absconds with it. Meanwhile, a white representative from Clybourne Park, the neighborhood where the family’s new house is located, attempts to bribe the family not to move there through the rhetoric of good-neighborliness and thinly veiled threats. In the play’s final scene, as Walter understands the significance of his family’s pride, he refuses the white man’s offer, and the family prepares to move.

Lorraine Hansberry.

(Library of Congress)

Critics in 1959 discussed a number of reasons for the success of A Raisin in the Sun. Many praised the believability of the characters, and some even suggested that they were universal and not necessarily specifically African American. Some critics saw the play as supporting assimilation, and others noted its focus on Africa and its complex and sympathetic portrayal of Pan-Africanism. Certainly, the critics agreed on the play’s emotional impact and on the significance of a Broadway theater filled with racially mixed audiences.

In addition to providing a concrete example of the Broadway success of an African American drama, Hansberry’s play articulates many significant political issues. Her representations of African Americans are complex and varied. In terms of class, for example, she portrays George, an upper-middle-class black man who will inherit his father’s business and who thinks that school is merely a means to an end; Beneatha, a young woman who wants to go to medical school to save people but who is also exploring her identity through various artistic expressions; Lena, the matriarch, who is concerned with providing a home for her family; and Walter Lee, the son who wants to make quick money and who harbors romantic dreams of success.

The various characters also have different relationships to their racial identity. George is portrayed as supporting assimilation, while Asagai, Beneatha’s Nigerian beau, finds black Americans apolitical. Asagai’s clothing and values are foreign to Lena, who identifies with black American culture. Never before had such a range of black characters been portrayed on the American stage.

While much of the plot of A Raisin in the Sun revolves around Walter Lee and his growth, Hansberry’s female characters are strong and complex and do not merely function as sexual objects. Rather, George, Asagai, and Walter Lee are overt chauvinists. In this way, A Raisin in the Sun is an excellent example of the complicated intersections of oppressions of gender, race, and class.

Hansberry grew up in Chicago, the daughter of a prominent real estate broker and the niece of a Harvard University professor of African history. Her parents were intellectuals and activists, and her father won an antisegregation case before the Illinois Supreme Court, upon which the events in the play were loosely based. Although her family was middle class, she attended segregated schools. She went to the University of Wisconsin for two years, then moved to New York in 1950. She met and married Robert Nemiroff, an aspiring writer, in 1953.

Several years later, Hansberry showed a draft of A Raisin in the Sun to Nemiroff, who suggested that she read it to a producer friend of his, Philip Rose Rose, Philip . Rose wanted to produce the play and immediately started to raise money. Because it seemed like a risky proposition to many New York producers, though, A Raisin in the Sun opened out of town, without a New York booking.

Hansberry completed one other play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, The (Hansberry) (1964), a philosophical play about a white man in Greenwich Village. It opened before her death from cancer at age thirty-five but was neither a financial nor critical success. Later critics commented that the play was misunderstood.

Nemiroff continued Hansberry’s legacy by compiling various letters and notes, which he edited and published as To Be Young, Gifted and Black: A Portrait of Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words (1969). He also arranged for the television production of The Drinking Gourd (1972), completed Hansberry’s unfinished manuscript of Les Blancs (1970), and published another play, What Use Are Flowers? (1972).

Significance

Since its first production in 1959, A Raisin in the Sun has served as an artistic, literary, and political touchstone for African American theater. The play influenced the black theater movement of the 1960’s by showing black artists that success on Broadway was attainable, and it opened a place for black realism as a dramatic genre. The play’s visibility positioned Hansberry as a spokesperson for issues about race, gender, politics, and the arts.

The play effectively launched the careers of many of the people involved. A Raisin in the Sun was the first Broadway directing job for director Lloyd Richards, who had worked previously as an actor and a director; he was the first black man to direct on Broadway. Richards went on to direct many plays on and off Broadway, including many of the plays of Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist August Wilson. He has also served as the director for the prestigious O’Neill Playwrights’ Center, as the dean of the Yale School of Drama, and as the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre.

Before the opening of A Raisin in the Sun, only Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil were well known among the play’s cast. Poitier began acting with the American Negro Theatre in 1945, and McNeil worked as a nightclub and vaudeville singer before performing on Broadway in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in 1953. Poitier subsequently acted in many plays, films, and television shows, and he won an Academy Award for his performance in 1963’s Lilies of the Field. Ruby Dee, who worked with the American Negro Theatre in Harlem before A Raisin in the Sun, went on to establish herself on the stage, in films, and on television. Other well-known African American actors who performed in A Raisin in the Sun include Lonne Elder III, Glynn Turman, and Diana Sands, who died of cancer at age thirty-nine.

Numerous African American black playwrights, actors, directors, and producers have cited A Raisin in the Sun as having influenced their work and their ambitions. Hansberry preceded the Black Arts movement and affected Amiri Bakara, James Baldwin, and Charles Fuller. August Wilson’s plays, each of which, in realist form, focuses on an African American family, are probably the best illustration of Hansberry’s artistic legacy. Hansberry’s work has also been important to the work of black women playwrights, including Adrienne Kennedy and Ntozake Shange.

There have been many critical debates about the meaning and significance of A Raisin in the Sun. Particularly during the Black Arts movement Black Arts movement of the 1960’s, many African American artists objected to the realist Realism;drama form of Hansberry’s play, which they saw as artistically conservative. They also saw success on Broadway as a political compromise. Some thought Hansberry sacrificed her integrity to make her message palatable to a white audience. Similarly, many critics have argued over the play’s meaning and about whether or not the play is assimilationist. Some have criticized the fact that many white audiences seem to have been able to identify with the characters, disregarding their own racism.

Some critics have quoted Hansberry as saying that A Raisin in the Sun is a play about people who happen to be black, but Nemiroff has commented on this frequent misquotation, which does imply that the play has an assimilationist meaning. In actuality, Hansberry said that A Raisin in the Sun, is, first and foremost, a black play.

In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry anticipated many aspects of the Civil Rights and women’s movements. For example, Beneatha wears an Afro hairstyle, which was uncommon in 1959 but which emerged a few years later as a significant political statement of black pride; Beneatha, who clearly represents Hansberry in the play, also discusses the political implications of her choice of hairstyle. Ruth struggles over whether or not to have an abortion, and, of course, the central issue of the play is whether or not the family should move to a white neighborhood.

Since 1959, there have been countless productions of A Raisin in the Sun in both professional and nonprofessional theaters. A film version was made in 1961, and a revival was produced for television’s American Playhouse in 1989. Raisin in the Sun, A (Hansberry) Theater;drama African Americans;writers African Americans;performers

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. A study of the lives and plays of Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, and Ntozake Shange. Places each of the playwrights in historical context by tracing issues in black playwriting. Discusses each playwright’s work in relation to form, images, symbols, and themes. Excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, Steven R. Hansberry’s Drama: Commitment Amid Complexity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. A study of all of Hansberry’s work and many of her unpublished pieces and letters. Separate chapter on A Raisin in the Sun analyzes the play, the 1959 production, the film, the musical, and subsequent productions. Excellent and extensive bibliographic sources. Photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cheney, Anne. Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Twayne, 1984. The first full-length biography of Hansberry. One chapter focuses on the written playscript of A Raisin in the Sun; information about the original production is included in an earlier chapter. Excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Effiong, Philip Uko. In Search of a Model for African-American Drama: A Study of Selected Plays by Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, and Ntozake Shange. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000. Reads Hansberry’s work alongside two other prominent African American playwrights in an attempt to theorize African American theatrical practice. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

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    Freedomways 19, no. 4 (1979). Special issue of the journal dedicated to Hansberry, who worked for Freedomways in the 1950’s. Includes articles by Woodie King, Jr., Douglas Turner Ward, Jean Carey Bond, and others. Many of the writers discuss their personal relationships with Hansberry. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hansberry, Lorraine. “A Raisin in the Sun” and “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.” Edited by Robert Nemiroff. New York: New American Library, 1987. Complete play text and comments by Frank Rich, Amiri Baraka, and Nemiroff.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keyssar, Helene. The Curtain and the Veil: Strategies in Black Drama. New York: Burt Franklin, 1981. An astute critical, chronological survey of black dramatists. Pays attention to the relationship between the theater and its audiences. One chapter on A Raisin in the Sun.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilkerson, Margaret B. “A Raisin in the Sun: Anniversary of an American Classic.” In Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, edited by Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Hansberry’s biographer describes the changes made between the original 1959 production and later productions.

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