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Women & Literature: Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Lorraine Hansberry (19 May 1930-12 January 1965) was a celebrated black playwright who was born in Chicago, Illinois, and died in New York City at the age of thirty-four after a scant six years in the professional theater. Her first produced play, A Raisin in the Sun, has become an American classic, enjoying numerous productions since its original presentation in 1959 and many professional revivals during its twenty-fifth anniversary year in 1983–1984. The Broadway revival in 2004 brought the play to a new generation, and earned two Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards for individual performances. The roots of Hansberry’s artistry and activism lie in the city of Chicago, her early upbringing, and her family.

Early years

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was the youngest of four children; seven or more years separated her from Mamie, her sister and closest sibling, and two older brothers, Carl Jr. and Perry. Her father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, was a successful real estate broker who had moved to Chicago from Mississippi after completing a technical course at Alcorn College. A prominent businessman, he made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1940 on the Republican ticket and contributed large sums to causes supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League. Hansberry’s mother, Nannie Perry, was a schoolteacher and later ward committeewoman who had come north from Tennessee after completing teacher training at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial University. The Hansberrys were at the center of Chicago’s black social life and often entertained important political and cultural figures who were visiting the city. Through her uncle, Leo Hansberry, professor of African History at Howard University, Hansberry made early acquaintances with young people from the African continent.

The Hansberry’s middle class status did not protect them from the racial segregation and discrimination characteristic of the period, and they were active in opposing it. Restrictive covenants, in which white homeowners agreed not to sell their property to black buyers, created a ghetto known as the “black metropolis” in the midst of Chicago’s South Side. Although large numbers of black Americans continued to migrate to the city, restrictive covenants kept the boundaries static, creating serious housing problems. Carl Hansberry knew well the severe overcrowding in the black metropolis. He had, in fact, made much of his money by purchasing large, older houses vacated by the retreating white population and dividing them into small apartments, each one with its own kitchenette. In doing so, he earned the title “kitchenette king.” This type of tiny, functional apartment became the setting in A Raisin in the Sun, just as the struggle for better housing drove its plot.

Hansberry attended public schools, graduating from Betsy Ross Elementary School and then from Englewood High School in 1947. Breaking with the family tradition of attending southern black colleges, Hansberry chose to attend the University of Wisconsin at Madison, moving from the ghetto schools of Chicago to a predominantly white university. She integrated her dormitory, becoming the first black student to live at Langdon Manor. The years at Madison focused her political views as she worked in the Henry Wallace presidential campaign and in the activities of the Young Progressive League, becoming president of the organization in 1949 during her last semester. Her artistic sensibilities were heightened by a university production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. She was deeply moved by O’Casey’s ability to universalize the suffering of the Irish without sacrificing specificity 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 capture that suffering in the idiom of the Negro people in her first produced play, A Raisin in the Sun. In 1950 she left the university and moved to New York City for an education of another kind.

In Harlem she began working on Freedom, a progressive newspaper founded by Paul Robeson, and turned the world into her personal university. 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. Living and working in the midst of the rich and progressive social, political, and cultural elements of Harlem stimulated Hansberry to begin writing short stories, poetry, and plays. On one occasion she wrote the pageant that was performed to commemorate the Freedom newspaper’s first anniversary. In 1952, while covering a picket line protesting discrimination in sports at New York University, Hansberry met Robert Barron Nemiroff, a student of Russian Jewish heritage who was attending the university. They dated for several months, participating in political and cultural activities together. They married on 20 June 1953, at the Hansberry home in Chicago. The young couple took various jobs during these early years. Nemiroff was a part-time typist, waiter, Multilith operator, reader, and copywriter. Hansberry left the Freedom staff in 1953 in order to concentrate on her writing and for the next three years worked on three plays while holding a series of jobs: tagger in the garment industry, typist, program director at Camp Unity (a progressive, interracial summer program), teacher at the Marxist-oriented Jefferson School for Social Science, and recreation leader for the handicapped.

A sudden change of fortune freed Hansberry from these odd jobs. Nemiroff and his friend Burt d’Lugoff wrote a folk ballad, “Cindy Oh Cindy,” that quickly became a hit. The money from that song allowed Hansberry to quit her jobs and devote herself full time to her writing. She began to write The Crystal Stair, a play about a struggling black family in Chicago that would eventually become A Raisin in the Sun.

Drawing on her knowledge of the working class black tenants who had rented from her father and with whom she had attended school on Chicago’s South Side, Hansberry wrote a realistic play with a theme inspired by Langston Hughes. In his poem “Harlem,” he asks: “What happens to a dream deferred?…Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?…Or does it explode?” Hansberry read a draft of the play to several colleagues. After one such occasion, Phil Rose, a friend who had employed Nemiroff in his music publishing firm, optioned the play for Broadway production. Although he had never produced a Broadway play before, Rose and his coproducer David S. Cogan set forth enthusiastically with their fellow novices on this venture. They approached major Broadway producers, but the “smart money” considered a play about black life to be too risky for Broadway. The only interested producer insisted on directorial and cast choices that were unacceptable to Hansberry, so the group raised the cash through other means and took the show on tour without the guarantee of a Broadway house. Audiences in the tour cities—New Haven, Connecticut, Philadelphia, and Chicago—were ecstatic about the show. A last-minute rush for tickets in Philadelphia finally made the case for acquiring a Broadway theater.


A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on 11 March 1959 and was an instant success with both critics and audiences. The New York critic Walter Kerr praised Hansberry for reading

“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, 12 March 1959)

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. Hansberry thoroughly researched the topic. 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 white poor as well as the slave. The play was deemed too controversial by NBC television executives and, despite Schary’s objections, was shelved along with the entire project.

Hansberry was successful, however, in bringing her prize-winning play, A Raisin in the Sun, to the screen a short time later. In 1959, a few months after the play opened, she sold the movie rights to Columbia Pictures and began work on drafts of the screenplay, incorporating several new scenes. These additions, which were rejected for the final version, sharpened the play’s attack on the effects of segregation and revealed with a surer hand the growing militant mood of black America. After many revisions and rewrites, the film was produced with all but one of the original cast and released in 1961.

In the wake of the play’s extended success, Hansberry became a public figure and popular speaker at a number of conferences and meetings. Among her most notable speeches was one delivered to a black writers’ conference sponsored by the American Society of African Culture in New York. Written during the production of A Raisin in the Sun and delivered on 1 March 1959—two weeks before the Broadway opening—“The Negro Writer and His Roots” is in effect Hansberry’s credo. In her speech, Hansberry declared that “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). Disgusted with the red baiting of the McCarthy era, she called for the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Later she criticized President John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis, arguing that his actions endangered world peace.

In 1961, amid many requests for public appearances, a number of which she accepted, Hansberry began work on several plays. Her next stage production, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, appeared in 1964. Before that, however, she finished a favorite project, Masters of the Dew, adapted from the Haitian novel by Jacques Romain. A film company had asked her to do the screenplay; however, contractual problems prevented the production from proceeding. The next year, seeking rural solitude, Hansberry purchased a house in Croton-on-Hudson, forty-five minutes from Broadway, in order to complete work on The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.

Early in April 1963 Hansberry fainted. Hospitalized at University Hospital in New York City for nearly two weeks, she underwent extensive tests. The results suggested cancer of the pancreas. Despite the progressive failure of her health during the next two years, she continued her writing projects and political activities. In May 1963 she joined the writer James Baldwin, the singers Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne, and other black and white individuals in a meeting in Croton to raise funds for SNCC and a rally to support the southern freedom movement. Although her health was in rapid decline, she greeted 1964 as a year of glorious work. On her writing schedule, in addition to The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, were Les Blancs, Laughing Boy (a musical adaptation of the novel), The Marrow of Tradition, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Achnaton, a play about the Egyptian pharaoh. Despite frequent hospitalization and bouts with pain and attendant medical conditions, she 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 the reality of the personal relationship. Those outside their close circle only learned of the divorce when Hansberry’s will was read in 1965.

Throughout 1964 hospitalizations became more frequent as Hansberry’s 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.” A month later, she left her sickbed to participate in the Town Hall debate “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash,” at which she and her fellow black artists challenged the criticism by white liberals of the growing militancy of the civil rights movement. She also managed to complete The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which opened to mixed reviews on 15 October 1964 at the Longacre Theatre. Critics were somewhat surprised by this second play from a woman who had come to be identified with the black liberation movement. Writing about people she had known in Greenwich Village, Hansberry had created a play with a primarily white cast and a theme that called for intellectuals to get involved with social problems and world issues.

Lorraine Hansberry’s battle with cancer ended at University Hospital in New York City. She was just thirty-four years old. Her passing was mourned throughout the nation and in many parts of the world. The list of senders of telegrams and cards sent to her family reads like a who’s who of the civil rights movement and the American theater. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window closed on the night of her death.

Hansberry left a number of finished and unfinished projects, among them Laughing Boy, a musical adapted from Oliver LaFarge’s novel; an adaptation of The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chesnutt; a film version of Masters of the Dew; sections of a semiautobiographical novel, The Dark and Beautiful Warriors; and numerous essays, including a critical commentary written in 1957 on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (a book that Hansberry said had changed her life). 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, who owned her papers, 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. Nemiroff then edited Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry, published in 1972 and including 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; it won an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award.

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.

In March 1988, Les Blancs, much of the original script restored, was presented at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, the first professional production in eighteen years.

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 more than simply a “first” to be commemorated in history books and then forgotten. The play was the turning point for black artists in the professional theater. Authenticity and candor combined with timeliness to make it one of the most popular plays ever produced on the American stage. The original production ran for 538 performances on Broadway, attracting large audiences of white and black fans alike. Also, in this play and in her second produced play, Hansberry offered a strong opposing voice to the drama of despair. She created characters who affirmed life in the face of brutality and defeat. Walter Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, supported by a culture of hope and aspiration, survives and grows; and even Sidney Brustein, lacking cultural support, resists the temptation to despair by a sheer act of will, by reaffirming his link to the human family.

With the growth of women’s theater and feminist criticism, Hansberry was rediscovered by a new generation of women in theater. Indeed, a revisionist reading of her major plays reveals that she was a feminist long before the second wave of the women’s movement surfaced. The female characters in her plays are pivotal to the major themes. They may share the protagonist role, as in A Raisin in the Sun, where Mama is co-protagonist with Walter; or a woman character may take the definitive action, as in The Drinking Gourd, in which Rissa, the house slave, defies the slave system and black stereotypes by turning her back on her dying master and arming her son for his escape to the North. In The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Sidney is brought to a new level of self-awareness through the actions of a chorus of women—the Parodus sisters. Likewise, the African woman dancer is ever present in Tshemabe Matoeseh’s mind in Les Blancs, silently and steadily moving him to a revolutionary commitment to his people. Hansberry’s portrayal of Beneatha as a young black woman with aspirations to be a doctor and her introduction of abortion as an issue for poor women in A Raisin in the Sun signaled early on Hansberry’s feminist attitudes. These and other portrayals of women challenged prevailing stage stereotypes of both black and white women and introduced feminist issues to the stage in compelling terms. Documents uncovered beginning in the 1980s revealing Hansberry’s homosexuality and sensitivity to homophobic attitudes have further increased feminist interest in her work.

Editor’s note: this extract from Black Women in America (2nd Ed.) was first published on the OUPblog on 14 September 2006.

Feature image: photo of a scene from the play A Raisin in the Sun, by Friedman-Abeles

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