“I think the artist who is creating the realistic work imposes on it not only what is but what is possible…because that is part of reality too.”— Lorraine Hansberry
Two years after the groundbreaking success of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry began work on another play, one that was in some ways vastly different from her earlier work. Set in the Greenwich Village in which she had made her first New York home, this new work was intended to capture the exhilarating and exhausting whirlwind of political activism to which she was so drawn. Hansberry hoped to explore not just the fevered eruptions that marked the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s, but the burgeoning awareness of other ills and the efforts, political and social, to overcome them: anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, the inequalities between rich and poor. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, as the play came to be called, would be a chronicle of “the people I know in the Village and not a stagey version of them,” focusing both on their challenges and their hopes, their present disappointments and future possibilities—a microcosm of an America poised on the brink of seismic change.
When Sidney Brustein finally opened on Broadway in October, 1964, its reception from both audiences and critics was decidedly mixed. Some viewers were overwhelmed by the torrent of ideas that swept through the play; others felt that an African American writer had no business writing about characters and themes beyond her own ethnicity. The production struggled through a brief three-month run, closing on January 12, 1965—the same day that Hansberry herself lost her struggle with cancer at the age of 34. For decades the play languished in obscurity, even as Hanberry’s first work grew to the stature of contemporary classic. But through the efforts of a new generation of theater artists—among them Anne Kauffman, director of this Goodman Theatre production— Sidney Brustein has received a new life, allowing its power and prescience to emerge. Today’s audiences can now experience a work that captures the fervent idealism and determination of a transforming era in our past, created with fiery honesty and poetry by one of our finest writers for the stage.
I am thrilled that Anne has brought this wrongly neglected work to the Goodman stage, imbuing it with the same passion and artistry that she brought to our premiere of Noah Haidle’s haunting Smokefall several seasons ago. Working closely with Joi Gresham of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust and a host of talented actors and designers, Anne and her production reveal the brilliance and humanity of what should be regarded as a classic in its own right.
Hansberry ended Sidney Brustein with a line that would be used on her gravestone: “Tomorrow, we shall make something strong of this sorrow.” No better words capture the legacy of an artist who, in a life and a career that were tragically brief, taught us to endure—and to hope.
Goodman Theatre Artistic Director