|Born:||May 19, 1930
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Died:||January, 12, 1965
New York, New York, U.S.
Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930 - January 12, 1965) was the first American playwright to create a realistic portrayal of African-American urban family life. She ushered in a new era in theater history by becoming the first African-American writer and the youngest American playwright to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for her play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Speaking of her watershed work, fellow writer James Baldwin said, "I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theater. And the reason was that never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on the stage."
When she died, at age 34, she had completed only two plays and left three others uncompleted; a sixth piece was assembled from excerpts by her ex-husband after her death. Her works dealt with many of the social issues of the 1950s, including racism, feminism, gender roles, the black family, and the pan-African movement. Although she died young, her achievements helped to pave the way for other African-Americans who wanted their plays produced.
Near the end of her life, she gave a talk to the United Negro College Fund writing contest winners describing them as, "… young, gifted and Black," a phrase that came to be not only associated with her, but with the civil rights movement as well.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Hansberry was the youngest child of successful real estate broker Carl Augustus Hansberry and Nannie Perry Hansberry. Her father, who once ran for Congress as a Republican, was a respected member of the African American community on Chicago's South Side. Her mother, a former school teacher, was active in politics and her first cousin was Shaunielle Perry, who also went on to become a playwright.
When she was eight, her family moved into an all white neighborhood, where they faced racial discrimination. Hansberry attended a predominantly white public school while her parents—experienced in both real estate and politics—fought against segregation on two fronts: Public schools and housing. Hansberry's father engaged in a legal battle against a racially "Restrictive covenant" that attempted to prohibit African-American families from buying homes. The legal struggle over their move led to the landmark Supreme Court case of Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940). Though victorious in the Supreme Court, Hansberry's family was subjected to prejudice and discrimination in their new surroundings. This formative childhood experience later inspired her to write her most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun.
Hansberry reflects upon this time of civil struggle for her family in her book, To Be Young Gifted and Black:
25 years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s "restrictive covenants" in one of this nation's ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy with disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house… My memories of this "correct" way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger pistol, doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court.
Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin for two years. It was there that she took a course in stage design and saw the plays of Henrik Ibsen and Sean O'Casey for the first time. Later, she studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago (then Roosevelt College) and in Guadalajara, Mexico. She moved to New York City in 1950, and worked at a number of jobs while she wrote short stories and plays. One of her jobs was working as an associate editor and reporter for Paul Robeson's monthly Freedom magazine. She met Robeson at the Jefferson School for Social Sciences, where she was taking an African Culture and History class instructed by W.E.B. DuBois.
She met her future husband, Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish graduate student from NYU, while at a political rally in New York City. In 1953, the night before their wedding, they attended a protest on behalf of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were scheduled to be executed as communist spies. After collaborating on several projects the couple separated in 1957, and divorced in 1964.
She became increasingly involved in radical political causes. In 1962, she mobilized support for the Student Non-Violent Coordination Committee (SNCC) in its struggle against segregation in the South; she spoke against the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Cuban missile crisis; and she wrote What Use Are Flowers, a play about life after an atomic war. In 1964, the SNCC prepared a book titled, The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality. The book contained photos of horrifying and distressing aspects of the black experience in America, including lynchings, savagely beaten demonstrators, and substandard housing. The photographs were coupled with a sharply worded text written by Hansberry.
Even though they were divorced, Hansberry made Nimeroff her literary executor and saw him almost every day. After her death, he consolidated many of her writings into the play, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. Subsequently, it became the longest-running Off-Broadway play of the 1968-69 season. The play appeared in book form the following year under the title, To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words.
Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer on January 12, 1965, at the age of 34. Over 600 people attended her funeral in Harlem. Dr. Martin Luther King in his condolence letter said, "Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn."
Hansberry's 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, earned her the distinction of being the first African-American woman to write a play produced on Broadway. Featuring the first all-black cast, it brought her overnight success. Two years later, she wrote the screenplay for the film version which starred Sydney Poitier, who had starred in the original Broadway production along with Ruby Dee. Frank Rich of the New York Times compared the play to other American classics, such as Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie.
The play takes its title from a poem written by Langston Hughes:
Raisin tells the story of three generations of the Younger family, poor, black and cramped into a ghetto apartment. They inherit a sum of money from the grandfather's death and are then faced with a moral dilemma: They now have the opportunity to move out of their hard scrabble existence and into a real home, but neighborhoods where blacks have recently moved into are receiving bomb threats.
The family's struggle is shown in all its emotionalism and complexity. The Youngers hope to have a piece of the "American Dream," particularly for the grandson, but are unsure how to proceed forward. The daughter struggles to know what her roots mean as a black American and the oldest son has his own ideas about how to provide for this family, largely dominated by the females in the household. As they struggle with tough choices—and with each other—sometimes weakening and sometimes advancing, those in the audience are left rooting for their ultimately brave decision in the face of prejudice and discrimination.
The film version of A Raisin in the Sun (1961) was the first depiction of African-American life seen by mainstream America. Hansberry included in her screen version several scenes of the Younger family interacting with the white world to show their deprivation and the subtle forms of racism they encountered in their everyday lives. In typical Hollywood fashion, most of those scenes were cut, which softened the drama's angry voice. Nearly a third of her screenplay was cut. Still, her screenplay won the Cannes Film Festival special award that year.
Her only other full length play, The Sign in Sydney Brustein's Window, did not experience the critical or commercial success of Raisin; however, many critics say that it demonstrated the subtlety and complexity that distinguished Hansberry's growth as a writer. It ran for 101 performances on Broadway and closed the night she died. It is the story of the conflicts and paradoxes of a group of young liberals and their struggle to make a difference while dealing with their own disillusionment as ideals are pitted against reality. The play incorporated her own experiences living in New York's Greenwich Village with husband Nemiroff and their literary and activist circle of friends.
After the success of Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry was considered an important forerunner in African-American drama and literature. In San Francisco, The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, which specializes in original stagings and revivals of African-American theater, is named in her honor.
Singer and pianist Nina Simone, a close friend of Hansberry's, used the title of her unfinished play to write, together with Weldon Irvine, the hit song "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black." It was performed for the first time live by Nina Simone on Black Gold (1970). Later it was adopted as the official Civil Rights anthem.
The Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award is awarded to the best Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival student-written play about the African-American experience.
In 2004, A Raisin in the Sun was staged as a Broadway revival at the Royal Theatre earning Tony Awards for Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald. The revival also featured a Tony Award-nominated performance from Sanaa Lathan, and the well-publicized Broadway acting debut of Sean "Diddy" Combs as Walter Younger.
All links retrieved January 28, 2014.
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