“Never be afraid to sit awhile and think.” — Lorraine Hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965) was an African American, playwright, and author of political speeches, letters, and essays. Her best known work, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, was inspired by her family’s legal battle against racially segregated housing laws in the Washington Park Subdivision of the South Side of Chicago during her childhood. The working title of A RAISIN IN THE SUN was originally “The Crystal Stair” after a line in a poem by Langston Hughes. The new title was from another Langston Hughes poem, which asked: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, / Or does it explode?” A RAISIN IN THE SUN was the first play written by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and Hansberry was the youngest and the first black writer to receive this award.
Hansberry’s portrayed individuals — not only black — who defend their own and other’s dignity. “All art is ultimately social: that which agitates and that which prepares the mind for slumber,” she once said. While her play was a success, during the Black Arts movement of the 1960s, many African-American artists objected to the realist 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 whether or not the play is assimilationist. One of the more enthusiastic and perceptive assessments of A RAISIN IN THE SUN came from the English critic Kenneth Tynan. “The supreme virtue of A Raisin in the Sun,” he wrote, “is its proud, joyous proximity to its source, which is life as the dramatist has lived it. The relaxed, freewheeling interplay of a magnificent team of African American actors drew me unresisting into a world of their making, their suffering, their thinking, and their rejoicing.” Although Hansberry insisted that her play was essentially about an African American family in a particular time and place, some critics–of both races–suggested that it simply “happened” to be about African Americans. Deeply committed to the Black struggle for equality and human rights, Hansberry’s brilliant career as a writer was cut short by her death when she was only 35. She died from cancer.
Her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff became the executor for several unfinished manuscripts. He added minor changes to complete the play “Les Blancs,” which Julius Lester termed her best work, and he adapted many of her writings into the play, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which was the longest-running Off-Broadway play of the 1968-1969 season. It appeared in book form the following year under the title, To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. She also left behind an unfinished novel and several other plays, including “The Drinking Gourd” and “What Use Are Flowers?” with a range of content, from slavery to a post apocalyptic future.
Lorraine Hansberry lives on through her play, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, which has been performed numerous times since her death. Most recently there was a 2004 revival of the show on Broadway, featuring Sean Combs, Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad.
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