Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)
Lorraine Hansberry was very fortunate: Her first major full-length play, A Raisin in the Sun, not only was produced on Broadway but also was a smashing success. Hansberry’s portrait of an average black family, its sorrows and struggles, is a mainstream play, in that it avoids rage and denunciations. It is a down-to-earth presentation of the everyday problems of a black family. As such, it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the 1958-1959 season. As a result of this success, Hansberry was commissioned by NBC to write a play as part of a television series planned in honor of the Civil War centennial. The result was The Drinking Gourd (1960, pb. 1972), a realistic portrayal of blacks in the Civil War period. Despite the praise of the producer, the play was not presented, because the series was canceled. Nevertheless, the play was an expression of Hansberry’s growing interest in her black roots.
Her second Broadway play was to be the last produced in her lifetime (Hansberry died in 1965). The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964) was greeted with mixed reviews. Its principal characters are mostly white; yet it is a more argumentative play than A Raisin in the Sun. Although technically a family play, its conflicts are more shrill than reasonable.
The rest of Hansberry’s output falls under the heading of posthumous works. Les Blancs (pr. 1970), a response to Jean Genet’s drama Les Negres (1958; The Blacks, 1960), tries to portray the hopes and tribulations of Africans. The play contains a number of set speeches, which tend to slow the pace. It is a far less polished dramatic vehicle than her other two full-length plays. Last, there is To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (1969), a compilation of Hansberry’s writings assembled by her husband, Robert Nemiroff. Originally commissioned by a radio station to commemorate the late playwright, this dramatic anthology, which resembles a documentary, portrays Hansberry as a woman who sought self-realization as a playwright and as a black. It contains excerpts from her letters, journals, and speeches, as well as from plays finished and unfinished. It presents her ideas on her black heritage and on black life in America.