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A Week to Remember: Lorraine Hansberry

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Playwright Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930. In 1959, Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun opened, making her the first African-American woman to have a play performed on Broadway.

The play is the story of the Younger family; after her husband's death, Lena Younger plans to spend part of the insurance money to buy the family a larger home in a cheaper neighborhood. They would be the first black family in that neighborhood, and Lena's children have sharply divided opinions about the wisdom of making such a move, and about how the rest of the money should be spent.

The story was partly inspired by Hansberry's own family history. Her father had attempted to purchase a home in a white neighborhood of Chicago that was covered by a covenant forbidding African-Americans to purchase property. Hansberry's father wanted to challenge the covenant, even though an earlier court case had upheld it. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which held in 1940 that even though some of the defendants in the Hansberry case had been defendants in the earlier case, the fact that Carl Hansberry had not been involved meant that the covenant could legally be challenged again.

Lorraine Hansberry briefly attended the University of Wisconsin before moving to New York in 1950. She joined the staff of the Freedom Newspaper where her co-workers included the legendary civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, who was in his 80s. She married Robert Nemiroff in 1953; he was a songwriter, successful enough that Hansberry was able to write full time. The couple separated in 1957 and divorced in 1964, but they continued to work together on the social and political projects that interested them.

A Raisin in the Sun (e-book | print) was written during their marriage, and it opened on March 11, 1959. The cast included some of the era's finest actors—Claudia McNeil, Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ivan Dixon, and Louis Gossett, Jr. The play ran for eight months and was nominated for four Tony Awards. With a few changes in smaller roles, the Broadway cast reunited for the film version, which was released in 1961.

3 book covers about Lorraine Hansberry

The story returned to Broadway in 1973, this time as a musical. Raisin was adapted from Hansberry's play by a team that included her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff. The musical ran for even longer than the play had, slightly over two years. The cast included Joe Morton, Debbie Allen, and Virginia Capers, who won the Tony Award in the role of Lena; Raisin won the Tony as the year's best musical.

In its original play form, A Raisin in the Sun has continued to return every few years. Esther Rolle and Danny Glover played the principal roles when PBS's American Playhouse presented the play on television in 1989. In a nod to history, the play's only white character—the representative of the homeowners' association who attempts to buy out the Youngers to keep them from moving in—was played by John Fiedler, who had played the role thirty years earlier in the original Broadway production and the 1961 film.

The play was revived on Broadway in 2004, and as always, it attracted a fine cast, led by Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, and Sanaa Lathan. In an unexpected casting choice, Sean Combs played the male lead. Both Rashad and McDonald won the Tony for their performances. As the original cast had been, this cast was reunited for a filmed version, this one for television in 2008.

And only a decade later, A Raisin in the Sun was revived on Broadway again. The 2014 production featured LaTonya Richardson Jackson, Sophie Okenedo, Anika Noni Rose, and Denzel Washington, and won three more Tony Awards, for Best Revival, Best Director, and Okenedo's performance.

Sadly, Hansberry died young of pancreatic cancer. She did have a second play appear on Broadway; The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (e-book | print) ran for three months in late 1964, and closed on January 12, 1965, the night of Hansberry's death. Robert Nemiroff gathered some of Hansberry's unpublished writings into a memoir/play called To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, which was published in slightly altered form as a sort of autobiography (print). That book was the principal inspiration for the 1969 song of the same name by Nina Simone.

Bruce Norris's 2010 play Clybourne Park (e-book | print) is a sort of sequel to A Raisin in the Sun; it begins as a look at the white family who plan to sell their home to the Youngers, then jumps forward fifty years to look at how that formerly segregated neighborhood has changed. Norris received the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his update.

Hansberry's life is the subject of Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, a documentary in the PBS American Masters series, and of Imani Perry's biography Looking for Lorraine (e-book | e-audio | print).

Also This Week

May 18, 1919

Margot Fonteyn was born. Fonteyn was an English ballet dancer who spent her long career with the Royal Ballet. She was named the company's prima ballerina at the age of 16 and became an international celebrity after touring the United States in 1949. She was considering retirement in 1961 when Rudolf Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union. They were perfectly paired as dancers, each pushing the other to better performances, and they danced together for a decade. Fonteyn and Nureyev can be seen in four dances in An Evening With the Royal Ballet.

May 18, 1926

The evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared from Venice Beach. She reappeared five weeks later, claiming to have escaped from kidnappers. Under significant pressure from Los Angeles religious leaders, who thought that McPherson's celebrity status and radio broadcasts were demeaning, a grand jury investigated whether McPherson had committed fraud. She was to stand trial on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in January 1927, but charges were dropped as inconsistencies began to appear in the prosecution's case. Daniel Mark Epstein covers the mystery, and the rest of McPherson's life, in Sister Aimee (e-book | print).

May 16, 1929

Adrienne Rich was born. Rich was a poet and essayist whose work often focused on the role of women in society. Her poetry became more formally adventurous during her career, and her subject matter became more explicitly political, challenging the limits placed on women by a patriarchal society. Rich was selected as a recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 1997 but declined the honor in protest of the recent defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts by the House of Representatives. The best of her poetry is gathered in Collected Poems 1950-2012 (e-book | print).

May 14 1969

Cate Blanchett was born. Blanchett is an Australian film and stage actress, one of the most acclaimed performers of her generation. She is perhaps most widely recognized for her role as the elf Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings movies but has also played real-life figures ranging from Queen Elizabeth I to Bob Dylan. Two of her early films are available for streaming at Hoopla—the Oscar Wilde adaptation An Ideal Husband, and the true-life crime drama Veronica Guerin, about a journalist investigating drug trafficking in Dublin