The first African American and the youngest woman to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Hansberry is best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959). The story of a black working-class family and their decision to move into a white neighborhood, the play helped pioneer the acceptance of black drama by Broadway producers and audiences. Although dismissed by some militant blacks as assimilationist, A Raisin in the Sun nevertheless garnered praise for its sensitive and revealing portrait of a black family in America. It has also attracted attention for its depiction of strong African American female characters who strive against a male-dominated society.
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATIONHansberry was born into a middle-class family on Chicago's south side in 1930. Around the age of seven, Hansberry and her family moved into a restricted white neighborhood, deliberately violating the city's "covenant laws" that legally sanctioned housing discrimination. When ordered to abide by the law, Hansberry's family, with the help of the NAACP, took their case to the Illinois Supreme Court, which struck down the legislation as unconstitutional. During litigation, white neighbors continually harassed the Hansberry family; in one incident, a brick thrown through their living room window barely missed Hansberry's head.
In high school, Hansberry became interested in theater. She attended the University of Wisconsin, where she became further acquainted with the works of such distinguished playwrights as August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, and Sean O'Casey. She studied painting in Chicago and abroad for a time but moved to New York City in 1950 to begin her career as a writer. Politically active in New York, Hansberry wrote for Paul Robeson's Freedom magazine and participated in various liberal crusades, particularly the civil rights and women's movements.
During a protest at New York University, she met Robert Nemiroff, a white writer and himself a pursuer of liberal politics. A romance developed, and in 1953 they married. Nemiroff encouraged Hansberry in her writing efforts, going so far as to salvage her discarded pages from the wastebasket. One night in 1957, while the couple was entertaining a group of friends, they read a scene from Hansberry's play in progress, A Raisin in the Sun. The impact left by the reading prompted Hansberry, Nemiroff, and friends to push for the completion, financing, and production of the drama within the next several months.
A Raisin in the Sun made its New York debut in March 1959 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. It was the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway and the first to be directed by a black director in more than fifty years. When A Raisin in the Sun won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Hansberry became the youngest writer and the first black artist ever to receive the honor, competing that year with such theater luminaries as Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, and Archibald MacLeish. In June 1959 Hansberry was named the "most promising playwright" of the season by Variety's poll of New York drama critics. A Raisin in the Sun ran for 530 performances. Shortly thereafter, in 1961, a film version of the drama was released, starring Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil. Hansberry won a special award at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for a Screen Writers Guild award for her screenplay.
Hansberry then began work on a play about a Jewish intellectual who vacillates between social commitment and paralyzing disillusionment. Entitled The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964), the play ran on Broadway for 101 performances despite mixed reviews and poor sales. The play closed on January 12, 1965, the day Hansberry died of cancer at the age of thirty-four.
Hansberry originally named her best-known play The Crystal Stair after a line in the Langston Hughes poem "Mother to Son," but she later changed its title to A Raisin in the Sun, an image taken from another Hughes piece, "A Dream...
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