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 Among her unpublished papers, however, she left a few partially finished plays.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).
Tom F. Driver
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...
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