Happy 85th Birthday Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930-January 12, 1965)

 

 

 

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Renowned playwright Lorraine Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930.

The youngest of four children, Lorraine was born in Chicago, IL, to Carl Augustus Hansberry, a successful real-estate broker, and Nannie Louise (born Perry) a school teacher. In 1938, Hansberry’s family moved to a white neighborhood and was violently attacked by neighbors. They refused to move until a court ordered them to do so, and the case made it to the Supreme Court as Hansberry v. Lee, ruling restrictive covenants illegal.

After graduating from Englewood High School in 1948, Hansberry broke her family’s tradition of enrolling in Southern black colleges and instead attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison. While enrolled at the university, she changed her major from painting to writing, and after two years decided to drop out and move to New York City.

In New York, Hansberry attended the New School for Social Research and then worked for Paul Robeson’s progressive black newspaper, “Freedom,” as a writer and associate editor from 1950 to 1953. She attended the Intercontinental Peace Congress in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1952 when Paul Robeson was denied a passport to attend.

Hansberry met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish songwriter, on a picket line, and the two were married in 1953. She continued to work part-time as a waitress and cashier and wrote in her spare time. By 1956, Hansberry quit her jobs and committed her time to writing.

Hansberry completed her first play in 1957, taking her title from Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem.”

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore — and then run?”

She began to circulate the play, “Raisin in the Sun,” trying to interest producers, investors, and actors. Sidney Poitier expressed interest in taking the part of the son, and soon a director and other actors (including Louis Gossett, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis) were committed to the performance. “Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959, making Hansberry the first Black woman to have a play produced on Broadway.

The play, with themes both universally human and specifically about racial discrimination and sexist attitudes, was successful, and a screenplay soon followed in which Lorraine Hansberry added more scenes to the story — none of which Columbia Pictures allowed into the film.

Lorraine Hansberry was commissioned to write a television drama on slavery, which she completed as “The Drinking Gourd,” but it was not produced — NBC executives apparently didn’t support the idea of a black screenwriter writing about slavery.

Moving with her husband to Croton-on-Hudson, Lorraine Hansberry continued not only her writing but also her involvement with civil rights and other political protest, even after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In 1964, “The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality” was published for SNCC (Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) with text by Hansberry. She divorced Nemiroff in 1964, though they continued to work together.

In October 1964, Lorraine Hansberry moved back into New York City as her new play, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” began rehearsals. Although critical reception was cool, supporters kept it running until Lorraine Hansberry’s death in January 1965.

After her death, her ex-husband finished her work on a play centered on Africa, “Les Blancs.” This play opened in 1970 and ran for only 47 performances. He also adapted many of her writings into the play “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which was the longest-running Off-Broadway play of the 1968–69 season. It appeared in book form the following year under the title “To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words.” ( Singer and pianist Nina Simone, who was a close friend of Hansberry, used the title of her unfinished play to write a civil rights-themed song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” together with Weldon Irvine. The single reached the top 10 of the R&B charts.)

“Raisin,” a musical based on “A Raisin in the Sun,” opened in New York in 1973, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical, with the book by Nemiroff, music by Judd Woldin, and lyrics by Robert Britten.

“A Raisin in the Sun” was revived on Broadway in 2004 and received a Tony Award nomination for Best Revival of a Play. The cast included Sean Combs (“P Diddy”) as Walter Lee Younger Jr., Phylicia Rashad (Tony Award-winner for Best Actress), Sanaa Lathan and Audra McDonald (Tony Award-winner for Best Featured Actress). It was produced for television in 2008 with the same cast, garnering two NAACP Image Awards.

A second revival of the play occurred in 2014, starring Denzel Washington, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Anika Noni Rose and Sophie Okonedo. Receiving 5 Tony nominations (one for the play, one for the director and one for each of the female leads), it garnered 3 awards: Best Revival of a Play, Best Direction of a Play – Kenny Leon, and Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play – Sophie Okonedo.

 

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