Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
The importance of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window to American drama and to African American writing is unclear. Critics disagree about the quality of the play and about its influence on other dramatists, but most agree that Hansberry’s compassionate humanism shines through it.
Hansberry was dying of cancer when the show opened to mixed reviews on October 15, 1964. Hansberry’s friends and associates in theater raised money to keep the show running until her death on January 12, 1965. This series of events has influenced the play’s reputation both negatively and positively, some critics believing that the play, though weak, did reasonably well because of the outpouring of sympathy for a promising young playwright cut off so early in her career, and others arguing that the play equals the quality of A Raisin in the Sun. Some have argued that the play is intellectually above most audiences and, therefore, doomed to few revivals.
The play was controversial because, though written by an African American, it has only one African American character in its fairly large cast. James Baldwin, in his essays, often discusses the peculiar position of African American intellectuals and artists. They are expected to represent their race and to speak for it. Hansberry resisted categorization as an African American writer insofar as this meant she had a duty or a limitation to write only about African American life and themes. On her own behalf and along with many in her generation of African American artists, Hansberry claimed all of her experience of life as potential subject matter for her plays. Good plays, she thought, change for the better the ways people see themselves and one another, and when this happens the subject is relatively unimportant. Whether or not this play is finally judged as good, it has encouraged African American writers to claim a similar freedom of subject.
Most important to Hansberry was that people recognize one another’s humanity, even when they disagree. Critic Steven Carter wrote, “Perhaps the most remarkable of Lorraine Hansberry’s qualities was the depth of her determination to understand all sides of a conflict, with compassion for what shapes and motivates everyone involved, while firmly deciding where justice lay—and acting on that decision.” This statement characterizes both of her best-known plays, A Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.