“I was born on the South Side of Chicago. I was born black and a female.”—Lorraine Hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry, the first African American woman playwright to have a play produced on Broadway, was born on the South Side of Chicago in 1930. Her father, Carl Hansberry, worked in real estate and eventually ran an unsuccessful bid for Congress as a Republican. Both her parents were leaders in the South Side’s black community, and their home was frequented by such illustrious personalities as Jesse Owens, Duke Ellington, Joe Louis and Paul Robeson. In what served as inspiration for Hansberry’s most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun, Carl moved his family into a white neighborhood close to the University of Chicago when Lorraine was a child. Many neighborhoods at the time had real estate covenants barring non-white residents, and after moving into their new house, the family faced violent mobs. Lorraine, at the age of eight, was struck by a brick that was thrown through one of the home’s windows. Her mother, Nannie Hansberry, spent nights in the downstairs living room with a loaded pistol in order to protect her family from intruders. Carl and the NAACP filed a suit against covenants that went to the US Supreme Court two years later. He won the case, but in practice little changed, at least immediately, in the way Chicago real estate was run. Lorraine believed the stress and heartache of those years caused her father’s death at age 50 in 1946.
After high school, Lorraine studied painting for a time at the Art Institute of Chicago before transferring to the University of Wisconsin. One day, she wandered into a rehearsal of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, an experience that she would later credit as her first step on the path to playwriting. In the Irish playwright’s work, she heard pain, a cry of inequality from working class people and a melody and authenticity that she found electrifying. Watching the play, Hansberry noted she witnessed, “the genuine heroism which must naturally emerge when you tell the truth about people.” She left UW and moved to Harlem at the age of 20, where she soon started working as an editor for Freedom, the underground black monthly published by Paul Robeson. By 23, she married Robert Nemiroff, a white civil rights activist, writer and music publisher she met at a protest at New York University. In 1957, Hansberry completed her first draft of A Raisin in the Sun and presented it to some of her husband’s colleagues. They quickly signed on to produce the play.
Over the next two years, Hansberry and her director, Lloyd Richards, worked further on the play and presented productions in Pittsburgh, New Haven and Chicago. A Raisin in the Sun then transferred to Broadway in 1959, where it played over 500 performances to rave reviews, packed houses and many awards and nominations. Hansberry was then recruited to write the screenplay for a film adaptation of Raisin. She was forced, however, to rewrite the script twice when Columbia Pictures told her that her first drafts were too controversial. She was also commissioned to write a teleplay for NBC about slavery and the Civil War—the script was titled The Drinking Gourd—but Hansberry was again told that her writing was too controversial for the time, and the project was cancelled. In 1961, Hansberry and Nemiroff moved to a house in Croton-on-Hudson, 40 miles north of their Greenwich Village apartment. Hansberry split her time between writing and fighting Southern segregation with the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and many other colleagues including James Baldwin, Lena Horne and Paul Robeson. Two years later, several months after being diagnosed with cancer, Hansberry and Nemiroff quietly divorced. They told almost no one of their separation and remained close collaborators. Despite her illness and frequent hospitalizations, Hansberry plowed ahead with rehearsals for a slightly delayed Broadway production of her newest play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Sidney Brustein opened on Broadway in October of 1964 to many favorable reviews, but the lack of “smash hit” status hurt the production at the box office. Through the vigilant support of Hansberry’s colleagues and supporters, the play eventually lasted 101 performances.
On January 12, 1965, three months into the play’s run, Hansberry succumbed to her illness at the age of 34. That evening’s performance of Sidney Brustein was canceled and it was ultimately decided the production would close without resuming performances. At her funeral, attended by over 600 people in a small brick-walled church, Paul Robeson spoke, Nina Simone sang, a letter was read from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a quiet Malcolm X sat in the back pew.
Posthumously, Nemiroff published a new edition of Sidney Brustein, an edition of Hansberry’s unfinished play Les Blancs (written as a response to Jean Genet’s Les Negres) and a collection of Hansberry’s writings, speeches and diary entries entitled To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which was produced both as a play and a book in 1969. Today her work is promoted by the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, and her complete papers are on display to the public at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
Goodman Theatre thanks the following Donors for their generous support of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window: