Last reviewed: June 2018
African American playwright, journalist, and essayist
May 19, 1930
January 12, 1965
New York, New York
The youngest playwright and the first black writer ever to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Lorraine Hansberry is one of the most important American authors, an artist whose work influenced a whole generation of black writers and opened the way for the publication and production of their work. The play that brought her to prominence, A Raisin in the Sun, won the award during a theatrical season that also launched new plays by acknowledged masters Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. Lorraine Hansberry
Born Lorraine Vivian Hansberry, the playwright was the youngest of the four children of Carl A. Hansberry, a realtor and black activist, and Nanny Perry Hansberry, a former schoolteacher and a committeewoman. Reared in a politically active household, Hansberry was early introduced not only to the major figures of the black community but also to African students, many of whom later became leaders in the liberated African nations. When she was eight years old, her father challenged Chicago’s discriminatory real estate statutes by moving his family into a new house in a white neighborhood. Ordered by a lower court to remove his family from the house, Carl Hansberry fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in his favor.
Thus by the time Lorraine Hansberry entered the University of Wisconsin, she was well aware of the plight of her race. A production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (pr. 1924) created in her the will to write “the melody as I knew it—in a different key.” She studied the work of August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen, but she reserved her greatest enthusiasm for O’Casey’s ability to depict “the emotional transformation of people on stage.” When Wisconsin and a brief period as an art student in Chicago and abroad proved inadequate for Hansberry’s intellectual and artistic needs, she moved to New York, where she became a writer for Paul Robeson’s Freedom magazine. She also became involved in a number of freedom marches and crusades, even representing Robeson at the Intercontinental Peace Conference in Uruguay in 1952. The next year, Lorraine Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a graduate student at New York University and an aspiring writer.
With Nemiroff’s encouragement, Hansberry gradually began to devote all of her time to writing, working concurrently on a number of projects, among them several plays, a novel, and even an opera libretto. When in 1957 Nemiroff and Hansberry entertained friends with a reading from a Hansberry play-in-progress, the play made such an impression that one of those friends, Philip Rose, managed, despite many rejections from seasoned Broadway producers, to arrange for the production of the play within a few months. That play made history. With Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee in the cast, A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York in March, 1959, to popular and critical acclaim. By June of that year, Hansberry was named “most promising playwright” of the year in a Variety poll of New York’s theater critics. The play ran for 538 performances and was nominated for Tony Awards in the best play, director, actor, and actress categories; the film version, with a screenplay by Hansberry, was released not long afterward, winning for Hansberry a special award at the Cannes Film Festival. The play was also later adapted by Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg as a Tony Award–winning musical, Raisin, and enjoyed an award-winning revival in 2014.
Despite two surgeries and a diagnosis of cancer, Hansberry continued her creative and political activity into the early 1960’s. She wrote numerous articles, essays, and letters on black experience, the arts, sexism, and homosexuality at this time; a handful of interviews and speeches Hansberry gave in during this period was published posthumously as Lorraine Hansberry Speaks Out. She met with Robert Kennedy to discuss racial problems, and she published The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality. During this time, her marriage to Nemiroff ended, although the two continued to be friends and colleagues. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window opened to mixed reviews at the Longacre Theatre in New York in 1964 and ran for 101 performances, largely because of the efforts of several Hansberry admirers to keep the play alive. The run ended on January 12, 1965, the day Lorraine Hansberry died of the cancer she had fought for nearly two years.
Hansberry’s most important and influential play, A Raisin in the Sun, has been the subject of much critical commentary and dissent. Widely praised for its universality of themes—the search for opportunity and a better life, the struggle to retain personal integrity, the heroism of ordinary people—the play has been described as “a play about Negroes which is not simply a Negro play,” as a play that dramatizes “the seductiveness of American materialistic values.” Focusing on the Younger family and its individual members’ dreams and aspirations, the play takes its title from a Langston Hughes poem that asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—then run?”
Much of the controversy about the play centers on the question of whether it is a black play. Hansberry herself believed that the play was definitely about the black experience. About the characters, she remarked, “The reason these people are in a ghetto in America is because they are Negroes.” There are, however, a number of critics who insist that Hansberry’s work is universal, that it deals with the problems that every human being, regardless of color or ethnic background, must face. Many of these commentators point to The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window as evidence that their assessment of Hansberry’s universality is correct. This second play by Hansberry has only one black character in it; in fact, the play features a group of white Greenwich Village intellectuals and artists. Moreover, the play’s concerns—the theater, Village bohemianism versus middle-class values, homosexuality, sexism, existentialism—are not those generally identified as black.
Had she written only A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry would have created for herself a secure place in the history of the American theater. Her entire body of work, however, has earned for her a membership in the ranks of the great American writers of all genres.