Lorraine Hansberry was a celebrated black playwright who was born in Chicago, Illinois, and died in New York City at the age of thirty-four from pancreatic cancer. Her most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun, was partially 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.
In order to meet the needs of growing families in the small black ghetto of Chicago, Lorraine’s father Carl (a prominent real estate broker) purchased large, older houses vacated by white flight and divided them up into small apartments that became known as “kitchenettes.” For his own family, he purchased a house in an area restricted to whites. The Hansberry family was thrust, the playwright said later, into a “hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’” where “howling mobs surrounded” their home. Hansberry was nearly killed when a cement slab was hurled through a window.
Her father joined with the NAACP to initiate a legal challenge against the restrictive covenants that kept blacks out of all-white neighborhoods. This struggle led to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940). The Court ruled in favor of Hansberry, although the ruling was made on technical grounds and did not invalidate all racial covenants.
The legal battle left Hansberry’s father embittered, and he died two years after the Supreme Court decision. Hansberry kept him alive however through her play, A Raisin in the Sun, set in the 1950s on the Southside of Chicago. The Younger family is a poor black family living in one of the “kitchenette” apartments. When Lena, the mother of Walter and Beneatha, receives insurance money from the death of her husband, everyone argues over what to do with the money. Lena decides to use a part of the insurance money to buy a new house in a white neighborhood. The repercussions of this decision, resonating throughout the Younger’s microcosmic world as well as the world outside, propel the action for the remainder of the play.
A Raisin in the Sun has become an American classic, enjoying numerous productions since its original presentation in 1959. The Broadway revival in 2004 brought the play to a new generation, and earned two Tony Awards for individual performances.
Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She became the first black student to live in her dormitory. She worked for the Henry Wallace presidential campaign and participated in the Young Progressive League, becoming president of the organization in 1949 during her last semester. While still in Madison, she was profoundly affected by a university production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. She was moved by O’Casey’s ability to universalize the suffering of the Irish and later wrote: “The melody was one that I had known for a very long while. I was seventeen and I did not think then of writing the melody as I knew it — in a different key; but I believe it entered my consciousness and stayed there.” She would come to sing that song as a Negro spiritual with her first produced play, A Raisin in the Sun.
In 1950 she left Madison and moved to New York City. In Harlem she began working on Freedom, a progressive newspaper founded by Paul Robeson. In 1952 she became associate editor of the newspaper, writing and editing a variety of news stories that expanded her understanding of domestic and world problems. The rich cultural and intellectual environment of Renaissance Harlem also stimulated Hansberry, and she began composing short stories, poetry, and plays.
In 1953 Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a white Jewish literature student and songwriter, whom she had met on a picket line protesting discrimination at New York University. Thereafter, she worked as a waitress and cashier, writing in her spare time. After Nemiroff gained success with his hit song, “Cindy, Oh Cindy,” Hansberry was able to devote herself entirely to writing. 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 opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959 and was an instant success with both critics and audiences. The New York critic Walter Kerr praised Hansberry for conveying “the precise temperature of a race at that time in its history when it cannot retreat and cannot quite find the way to move forward. The mood is forty-nine parts anger and forty-nine parts control, with a very narrow escape hatch for the steam these abrasive contraries build up. Three generations stand poised, and crowded, on a detonating-cap.” (New York Herald Tribune, March 12, 1959). Sidney Poitier played the role of Walter Lee. The film version of 1961, also starring Sidney Poitier, received a special award at the Cannes festival.
Hansberry became a celebrity overnight. The play was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1959, making Lorraine Hansberry the first black playwright, the youngest person, and only the fifth woman to win that award.
In 1960 the NBC producer Dore Schary commissioned Hansberry to write the opening segment for a television series commemorating the Civil War. Her subject was to be slavery. The result was The Drinking Gourd, a television play that focused on the effects that slavery had on the families of the slave master and the poor whites as well as the slaves. The play was considered too controversial by NBC television executives and, despite Schary’s objections, was shelved along with the entire project.
A Raisin in the Sun, however, continued to enjoy widespread popularity. In the wake of its’ extended success, Hansberry became a public figure and popular speaker. She declared “all art is ultimately social” and called upon black writers to be involved in “the intellectual affairs of all men, everywhere.” As the civil rights movement intensified, Hansberry helped to plan fund-raising events to support organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Early in April 1963, Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Despite the progressive failure of her health during the next two years, she continued her writing projects and political activities. She also completed a photo-essay for a book on the civil rights struggle titled The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (1964).
In March 1964 she quietly divorced Robert Nemiroff, formalizing the separation that had occurred several years earlier. Only close friends and family had known; their continued collaboration as theater artists and activists had masked Hansberry’s homosexuality. Those outside their close circle only learned of the divorce when Hansberry’s will was read in 1965.
Throughout 1964 Hansberry’s hospitalizations became more frequent as the cancer spread. In May she left the hospital to deliver a speech to the winners of the United Negro College Fund’s writing contest in which she coined the famous phrase, “young, gifted, and black.” She also managed to complete The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which opened to mixed reviews on October 15, 1964.
Lorraine Hansberry’s battle with cancer ended at University Hospital in New York City. She was just thirty-four years old. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window closed on the night of her death.
Hansberry left a number of finished and unfinished projects. In her will, she designated Nemiroff as executor of her literary estate. Hansberry’s reputation continued to grow after her death in 1965 as Nemiroff edited, published, and produced her work posthumously. In 1969 he adapted some of her unpublished writings for the stage under the title To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. The longest-running drama of the 1968 – 1969 off-Broadway season, it toured colleges and communities in the United States during 1970 – 1971. A ninety-minute film based on the stage play was first shown in January 1972.
In 1970 Nemiroff produced on Broadway a new work by Hansberry, Les Blancs, a full-length play set in the midst of a violent revolution in an African country. In 1972 Nemiroff published The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry, which included Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd, and What Use Are Flowers?, a short play about the consequences of nuclear holocaust. In 1974 A Raisin in the Sun returned to Broadway as Raisin, a musical, produced by Robert Nemiroff. Raisin won a Tony Award as the best musical and ran on Broadway for nearly three years.
In 1987, A Raisin in the Sun, with original material restored, was presented at the Roundabout Theatre in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and other theaters nationwide. In 1989 this version was presented on national television. The year 2004 saw the first Broadway revival of the play. With the hip-hop star Sean “P. Diddy” Combs in the lead role of Walter Lee, the show attracted a large and diverse audience. For her performance as Lena Younger, Phylicia Rashad won the first Tony for best performance by an actress in a drama ever awarded to an African American woman. Audra McDonald won her fourth Tony for best featured actress for her role as Beneatha.
Nemiroff died of cancer at age 61 on January 17, 2009.
Hansberry made a significant contribution to American theater, despite the brevity of her theatrical life and the fact that only two of her plays were produced during her lifetime. A Raisin in the Sun was a turning point for black artists in the professional theater. One of the most popular plays ever produced on the American stage, it ran for 538 performances on Broadway, attracting large audiences of white and black fans alike. Her position on the political obligations of black writers continues to be an inspiration to her intellectual heirs.