Lorraine Hansberry 1930–1965
During her short career Hansberry seemed destined to become an important force in American theater. With the success in 1959 of A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry became the first black woman to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best American play. This, her first play, was also the first by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. It told the story of a black family living on Chicago's South Side, struggling to hold together and to get ahead in a forbidding world. Although a few critics charged her with sentimentality, the sincerity and realism of her perceptions along with her effective use of staging earned the play much acclaim. The film version, adapted by Hansberry, was not as well-received critically, although it was still a popular success.
Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, closed after 101 performances on the day Hansberry died. Among her unpublished papers, however, she left a few partially finished plays. Some of this material has been edited and revised by her ex-husband and literary executor, Robert Nemiroff, Les Blancs being the most notable of these plays. He also produced the pastiche of her plays, letters, and journal entries called To Be Young, Gifted and Black. All her works are revived in their original form on occassion; they and their adaptations continue to please audiences. Most recently, A Raisin in the Sun became the highly successful musical Raisin. Due to their unfinished state at Hansberry's death, perhaps, none of the posthumous works has the same coherence and drive of her early work. However, her plays are often acknowledged for their expressive, compassionate view of people who transcend the limitations of their lives. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
"A Raisin in the Sun" has vigor as well as veracity and is likely to destroy the complacency of any one who sees it….
"A Raisin in the Sun" is a play about human beings who want, on the one hand, to preserve their family pride and, on the other hand, to break out of the poverty that seems to be their fate. Not having any axe to grind, Miss Hansberry has a wide range of topics to write about—some of them hilarious, some of them painful in the extreme.
You might, in fact, regard "A Raisin in the Sun" as a Negro "The Cherry Orchard." Although the social scale of the characters is different, the knowledge of how character is controlled by environment is much the same, and the alternation of humor and pathos is similar.
If there are occasional crudities in the craftsmanship, they are redeemed by the honesty of the writing.
[Honesty] is Miss Hansberry's personal contribution to an explosive situation in which simple honesty is the most difficult thing in the world. And also the most illuminating.
Brooks Atkinson, "The Theater: 'A Raisin in the Sun'," in The New York Times (© 1959 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 12, 1959 (and reprinted in NY Theater Critics' Reviews, Vol. XX, No. 7, March 16, 1959, p. 345).
As a piece of dramatic writing [A Raisin in the Sun] is old-fashioned. As something near to the conscience of a nation troubled by injustice to Negroes, it is emotionally powerful. Much of its success is due to our sentimentality over the "Negro question."
Miss Hansberry has had the good sense to write about a Negro family with vices as well as virtues, and has spared us one of those well-scrubbed, light-skinned families who often appear in propaganda pieces about discrimination. If she avoids the over-worked formulas of the "Negro" play, however, she does not avoid those of the "domestic" play….
It may have been Miss Hansberry's objective to show that the stage stereotypes will fit Negroes as well as white people, to which my own reply must be that I never doubted it. They will fit anybody. Rather, anybody can be made to fit them.
The play is moving as a theatrical experience, but the emotions it engenders are not relevant to the social and political realities. The effect it produces is comparable to that which would be had in the concert hall if a composer of today were to write a concerto in the manner of Tchaikovsky.
Tom F. Driver, "Theatre: 'A Raisin in the Sun'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1959 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 140, No. 15, April 13, 1959, p. 21.
The playwright who is a Negro is faced with a special problem. Broadway has a tradition of Negro shows, inevitably folksy or exotic, almost always musical, of which the only virtue is that Negro performers get a chance to appear as something more than filler. The obvious reaction to such shows is the protest play, the Negro agitprop, which can be as false to American Negro life as the musicals. A playwright with serious intentions, like Miss Hansberry, has to avoid both pitfalls, has to try to write not a Negro play, but a play in which the characters are Negroes….
Having suggested that objectivity is impossible with respect to A Raisin in the Sun, I should like to make a few objective remarks about it. The play, first of all, is old fashioned. Practically no serious playwright, in or out of America, works in such a determinedly naturalistic form as Miss Hansberry in her first play…. Raisin is the kind of play which demands the naturalism that Miss Hansberry has used, but in choosing to write such a play, she entered Broadway's great sack race with only a paper bag as equipment. Her distinction is that she has won the race this year, which proves, I suppose, that narrow naturalism is still a possible—if anachronistic—form….
[The] play itself—in its concentration on the family in society—recalls the 30's and Clifford Odets…. The conflict within the play is between the dreams of the son, Walter Lee, who wants to make a killing in the big world, and the hopes of his mother and his wife, who want to save their small world by transplanting it to an environment in which it might conceivably flourish. The mechanical means by which this conflict is illuminated—the insurance money, its loss, the representative of the white...
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Lorraine Hansberry took the title of her [first] play from a line by Langston Hughes: "What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / Like a raisin in the sun?" Her success was the winning of a dream that first came upon her in her young girlhood when she first read the poetry of Langston Hughes and others. Much of this poetry … was about Africa, and on this subject … curiously enough, Miss Hansberry also in a way completes a circle begun by Hughes. In a new and much more realistic setting, she too has had a vision of a romantic reunion between Negro American and black African. But her vision is shaped by new times, new outlooks. It is no longer a wispy literary yearning after a lost primitivism, nor does she beat it out on synthetic tomtoms. Nor is it any longer a matter of going back-to-Africa as the ultimate option of despair in America. In Lorraine Hansberry's time it has become a matter of choice between new freedoms now in the grasp of black men, both African and American. (pp. 329-30)
In A Raisin in the Sun, the new form of an old fact, the new shape of the African idea in the American Negro universe, made its first appearance, I believe, in any play or story of wide public notice. If it appeared only incidentally, as a secondary theme to a much more moving main story, this too was appropriate, since this was just about where the subject of Africa stood in the thinking of Negroes at the time the play was produced…. [Of those who saw it] few, it seemed, were quite ready to tune in on the new sounds and sights of Africa that also came into view in Miss Hansberry's play. They will no doubt reappear at higher and stronger levels, as time goes on, and will be counterposed to something more substantial than Miss Hansberry's idea of decadent bourgeois affluence in America. Still, she had opened the subject to a new and higher visibility than it had yet enjoyed…. (pp. 332-33)
Harold R. Isaacs, "Five Writers and Their African Ancestors, Part II" (originally a lecture given at the University of Pennsylvania in June, 1960), in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, 21 (copyright, 1960, by Atlanta University; reprinted by permission of PHYLON), Vol. XXI, No. 4, Fourth Quarter (December, 1960), pp. 317-36.∗
Miss Hansberry's dialogue [in her screenplay adaptation for the film A Raisin in the Sun] is generally commonplace and occasionally ridiculous, her perception of character is on the level of Samuel French's catalogue of amateur plays, and her sense of structure is primitive….
The bulk of the play is garden-variety, lower-class domestic drama. Except for the daughter's Nigerian suitor and the superficial discussion of Negro modes of thought that he provokes, this could be, up to this point, any John Golden suburban play of the twenties transferred to a Negro setting. Now the author, running out of plot and determined that her story shall not only be about Negroes but about race problems,...
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In its transference from stage to screen, Lorraine Hansberry's deeply moving play about an impoverished but indestructable Negro family, has, alas, lost more than it has gained. On stage, the play literally whipped its way across the footlights to lash the audience with its verve and vigour. On film, its effect is at once less urgent and personal, and one seriously feels the lack of breathing space needed between us, the spectators of the action, and the action itself. We tend, as it were, to be too near the drama to ever feel it properly….
This is not to say, of course, that the film is un-entertaining…. [The] vivid flounce of Miss Hansberry's exciting dialogue [makes] it thoroughly worthwhile...
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Though Miss Hansberry is frequently guilty [in "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window"] of ladling out words with a soup-spoon ("these two implacable pools of cynicism" are simply a man's eyes) and though she has wasted time name-dropping among Village intellectuals …, she has still forced a good many vigorous attitudes through the verbal smog and she sometimes finishes off an exchange as though a skull had been smartly cracked.
What makes her virtues hard to get at is the loose bag in which she has packed them, for all the world like a shopper who has come from a supermarket of false hopes with bundles that won't stay bundled and keep dropping regularly to the floor. The narrative embrace in which...
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One of the biggest selling points about [A Raisin in the Sun]—filling the grapevine, riding the word-of-mouth, laying the foundation for its wide, wide acceptance—was how much the Younger family was just like any other American family. Some people were ecstatic to find that "it didn't really have to be about Negroes at all!" It was, rather, a walking, talking, living demonstration of our mythic conviction that, underneath, all of us Americans, color-ain't-got-nothing-to-do-with-it, are pretty much alike…. This uncritical assumption, sentimentally held by the audience, powerfully fixed in the character of the powerful mother with whom everybody could identify immediately and completely, made any...
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The people who surround Walter Lee are all trying to get him to adjust to the conditions of life for a Negro in a white man's world. All except Beneatha. Beneatha seeks her own escape first in a series of hobbies and fads, then in intellectualism and a desire to find her African roots.
All this is played against the backdrop of a society that is indifferently hostile to the aspirations of black folk in an environment of ignorance, lassitude, hate, filth and poverty. The Younger's apartment is an oasis wherein all of society's "good" values are being maintained with substantial assistance from the King James version….
If serious can be taken to mean earnest, deep, grave, sober,...
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For all its sympathy, humour and humanity … [A Raisin in the Sun] remains disappointing—the more so when compared with the achievement of her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window…. Its weakness is essentially that of much of Broadway naturalism. It is an unhappy crossbreed of social protest and re-assuring resolution. Trying to escape the bitterness of Wright, Hansberry betrays herself into radical simplification and ill-defined affirmation….
[The] central factor of the play is not poverty but indignity and self-hatred. The survival of the family is dependent on their ability to accommodate themselves to the white world. (p. 156)
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To Be Young, Gifted and Black, as everyone knows by now, is a patchwork play pieced together by Robert Nemiroff from the produced and unproduced works, the letters, the speeches, the articles of Lorraine Hansberry. Subtitled "The World of Lorraine Hansberry," it is an attempt to present Miss Hansberry, the writer, and the background which produced her and provided the material for her work….
Whatever Nemiroff intended, the play made a mockery of Miss Hansberry's talents, destroyed everything that is good and subtle in her work. (p. 542)
For her … human possibility was what counted…. The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window was primarily an attack on a particular kind...
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To explain, a decade after the fact, to a college class in American drama how neatly A Raisin in the Sun fits into a logical evolution within the theatre, to justify its dramatic viewpoint, and to praise its creator for her skill in writing a black … play without "blackness," remaining all the while a black writer who refuses to call attention to the fact, will raise instant challenges. The accusations are many. Is not Lorraine Hansberry an Uncle (Aunt?) Tom? Is not A Raisin in the Sun a sellout to the white power structure? Are not the Youngers really betraying themselves and their own? Is not their attempt to assimilate themselves into the white society, and to force themselves, however peacefully,...
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"Les Blancs" … is the play that Lorraine Hansberry left unfinished at her death in 1965 and it is as if the American racial dilemma of that time has been permanently frozen into her script. It is very strange to watch this play and, in a very real way, actually see the intelligent American mind of five years ago, struggling between old concepts of liberalism-civil rights and new ideas of militance….
Miss Hansberry's tragically brief playwriting career charted the postwar steps in the racial movement, from working within the system ("A Raisin in the Sun") to a burgeoning distrust of white liberals ("The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window") to the association with Africa in "Les Blancs" that would...
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So much has happened in Africa since 1961 [when Lorraine Hansberry began the writing of "Les Blancs"] that the play, laid in a Schweitzer-like medical mission in some vast equatorial country plagued by white colonial rule and black terrorism, has an air of being far less current than it claims to be …, and this datedness is reflected in its doggedly didactic tone; we are being lectured to and made to see things in the light that Teacher wishes us to see them in and not otherwise. When, fairly late in the play, the plot erupts into melodrama … our sympathies are not engaged, for the characters involved have long since come to seem symbols of sets of beliefs and not individuals capable of holding contradictory...
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Virtually all of "Les Blancs" is … vivid, stinging, intellectually alive, and what is there is mature work, ready to stand without apology alongside the completed work of our best craftsmen. The language in particular is … unmistakably stage language….
The anguish of [Tshembe's] decision is the burden of the play, but it becomes anguish only at the final curtain. Prior to that it is verbal sharpshooting of the most trenchant kind, fun when it is hurting….
[Some of the characters's] roles are not fully developed or neatly tucked into the play's structure. [The] journalist is a figurehead with no developed purpose of his own; his task is to set up pomposities for [Tshembe] to...
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I confess to have been more impressed by Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs … than I expected to be; more, indeed, than most of the professional theatre-tasters. At a time when rave reviews are reserved for plays like Sleuth and Conduct Unbecoming, I am tempted to speak of Les Blancs in superlatives.
I suspect, too, that resistance to the play on the ground of its simplistic argument is a rationalization for social embarrassment. Les Blancs is not propaganda, as has been inferred; it is a forceful and intelligent statement of the tragic impasse of white and black relations all over the world, as well as of the complexity of motivation and effect where European...
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A Raisin in the Sun is an ego-play in that it describes how a Black family comes to the right relationship with "reality." (p. 109)
It can be asked, if A Raisin in the Sun is oriented to reality, why does Walter willingly give up those things, i.e., independence and economic success, which we are told are real social and moral values in America? And how can the Youngers' moving into a white suburb be called "reality" and not wish-fulfillment? As a partial answer to these questions, let us look for a moment at some characteristics of the play. First, it is apparent that A Raisin in the Sun is not necessarily a Black play; that is, none of the personality traits of the Youngers,...
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The compelling thing about Sidney Brustein is that although political commitment is the overriding concern, by and large the play is not about political issues in the usual sense. It concerns a small group of rather ordinary people who face a variety of real problems in their lives…. Sidney, in the midst of this group, has more "social conscience" than any of them but is really not up to the role of ethical and political standard-bearer that he pretends. Until Iris leaves him, his awareness of social problems is limited to a sense of discomfort and disillusionment about the quality of urban life. He does not feel social problems as actually touching him, and he is not as yet, and has no reason to be, angry...
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["The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window"] is a play about idealism, liberalism and not selling-out, and it is written in something of the declamatory manner of the thirties, although its theme is strictly about the sixties….
The strength of Miss Hansberry was in her remarkable ability to write strong theatrical scenes. There are three or four scenes here that in themselves represent some of the best Broadway writing of the last few years.
Miss Hansberry is a master at the dramatic confrontation—the savage and surprising impact of people upon one another, and when the mood has taken her the writing has genuine quality….
There is no doubt in my mind that the...
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The Drinking Gourd, a three-act drama well suited for television presentation, is what may be called in television jargon a documentary on American plantation slavery. It is a compact yet comprehensive, authentic, and vivid portrayal of the "peculiar institution," correctly called the sum of all villainies, as it was especially in the cotton kingdom on the eve of the Civil War. The action in the drama is framed between a long prologue and a brief epilogue both of which are spoken by a soldier "perhaps Lincolnesque" in appearance. The prologue kaleidoscopically reviews the history of American slavery from its beginning to the middle of the nineteenth century. The epilogue avows that by that time the Civil War...
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The subject matter of A Raisin in the Sun may make it appear outdated. The action taking place in what now seems like a long past time—the days before Black Power, antiwar protests, student uprisings and black rebellions. The play concerns itself with the Younger family: Mama Younger, who has survived and won; her son, Walter, the pivotal character of the play, the black male castrated by the blade of the American dream but who blames the castration on his wife; Ruth, Walter's wife, who sees the wound and is unable to stanch the bleeding and, like her Biblical namesake, can say, "Whither thou goest, I will go"—but Walter will not lead; Beneatha, Walter's sister, a college student, a black militant in a day...
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[The Drinking Gourd] portrays American plantation slavery which … characterizes a phase of the black experience. The title was taken from a spiritual, "Follow the Drinking Gourd," linked with the Underground Railroad and derived from the slave metaphor for the Big Dipper which points to the North Star. This star was considered the beacon to freedom for many an escaped slave attempting to find his way to the North in the night. In the play, Hansberry illustrates the cruelties of slavery from the vantage points of the characters involved: the slave, the poor White, the slave owner, his wife and son. Even though she obviously identifies with the slaves, the play shows her empathy for other human beings. Each...
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