Book Review: Looking for Lorraine Hansberry

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent an agent to see the out-of-town tryout of “A Raisin in the Sun” to determine if the play had Communist content. The FBI did not do this with every show that was planning to open on Broadway in 1959, but the author of this one was Lorraine Hansberry.

Hansberry is generally remembered nowadays (if at all) as the first African-American woman playwright on Broadway, the author of one of the most popular, influential and moving plays in the history of American theater. But, at the time, the FBI knew her only as a Communist. She had been under surveillance for years.

Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun

Hansberry was just 28 years old when “A Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway — 60 years ago next month – and lived only six more years, dying of cancer at the age of 34.  Yet her short life was extraordinarily full and varied. She was the privileged daughter of an affluent, politically active Chicago family whose father’s anti-segregation lawsuit was resolved in his favor by the United States Supreme Court. She was a radical activist and anti-colonialist who gave speeches on Harlem street corners. Her mentors included the great performer and activist Paul Robeson; Robeson founded the newspaper Freedom, where Hansberry worked as a journalist. She was an intellectual who studied with the legendary scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois and debated with novelist Richard Wright; a bohemian who lived in Greenwich Village in an interracial marriage; a closeted but active lesbian who wrote short stories about lesbian life under a pseudonym; a celebrity who formed close friendships with both writer James Baldwin and singer Nina Simone.  (Simone credited Hansberry with her political awakening: “We never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together. It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution — real girls’ talk.”) Hansberry’s play made her so famous that the FBI backed off, according to her FBI file, “since the possibility exists that the Bureau could be placed in an embarrassing position if it became known to the press that the Bureau was investigating the subject and/or the play.”   Shortly afterwards, the State Department and JFK and RFK were inviting her to meetings, as a representative of America or of her race. At one such meeting, she confronted Attorney General Robert Kennedy about the inaction of the U.S. government in the face of white violence in Birmingham, and urged him to make a “moral commitment” to civil rights.  Less than a month later, President John F. Kennedy gave his speech characterizing civil rights as a moral issue, and proposing what eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Lorraine Hansberry was a remarkable woman “who has had far too little written about her, about her other work, about her life…She sparked and she sparkled,” writes Imani Perry, a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, in Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry

“Looking for Lorraine” is not a conventional biography, which the author acknowledges, telling us it’s “less a biography than a genre yet to be named,” and then suggesting that the book could be categorized a “third person memoir.”

Whatever else that description is supposed to mean, the book is occasionally tinted with autobiography; it could almost be entitled “Looking for Imani via Lorraine.” The author explains her feeling of personal kinship with her subject, referring to her as Lorraine rather than Hansberry throughout, and threading the narrative with parallels to her own life, including some odd coincidences:  Perry’s father, who idolized the playwright, happened to have the same birthday as Hansberry.

Why this approach matters is because the book’s focus seems to reflect the interests of its author….and Perry doesn’t seem all that interested in the theater. Fewer than 15 percent of the book’s 204 pages are devoted to “Raisin” and Hansberry’s other plays, “The Sign in Sydney Brustein’s Window,” “Les Blancs,” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (which her ex-husband put together posthumously from her writings.)  We get just scrimpy or scattered recaps of the plots, usually recounted not for the pleasure of their stories but as illustration of some larger analysis of Hansberry’s life or beliefs, and we learn little about how they were written and next to nothing about how they were staged.

The book offers what feel like perfunctory versions of the dramatic moments that theatergoers have come to expect in a biography of a theater artist.  Ok, these moments may all be clichés – landing on the inspiration, struggling with the script, putting together the creative team, scrounging for financing, the anxiety of opening night, the standing ovation, the rave reviews, the portrait at Sardis(?) — but what  theater lover can resist them?  And they are especially savory in “A Raisin in the Sun,” given what seemed initially as the insurmountable challenge of mounting on Broadway an unprecedented serious dramatic play about black life by the first-ever black female writer, a black director, and 10 out of 11 black cast members.  We get the fuller flavor of these theatrical moments in “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,”a 2017 documentary (currently available on Kanopy, a streaming service that is free to anybody with a public library card.) Ironically, Imani Perry is one of the talking heads in that documentary.

Perry would surely argue that Hansberry was more than just a playwright, and that the rest of her life and work has been ignored.  That may be why, for example, Perry seems to communicate more enthusiasm for Hansberry’s unknown essays and short stories on lesbian themes and characters. It’s important as well, to place Hansberry in her larger political and historic context. But Hansberry’s plays were certainly a part of her life; indeed, it shouldn’t be controversial to declare them a central part.

Still, though they’re not emphasized, there are enough passages in “Looking for Lorraine” to piece together a portrait of the artist as a young playwright.  She was seven years old when her family moved into a house in a white neighborhood,  which led to attacks by an angry white mob; one thug threw a chunk of cement through the window that barely missed Lorraine’s head; it was thrown with such force that it lodged in the living room wall.  Hansberry wrote about this moment numerous times in fictional form, and it seems obvious it helped inspire her first play. As a student at the (nearly all white) University of Wisconsin at Madison, she read and performed in plays (such as Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma) and was especially taken with Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock,” noting (as Perry puts it) that playwright’s “poetry in everyday expression.” She early on wanted to be a visual artist – she took painting classes at a summer art program after her sophomore year in the “bohemian enclave” of Ajijic, Mexico — and her stage directions are “works of art” that “beg to be painted, hence the magnificent stills that remain from the Broadway production.”

Hansberry felt it a fault in “A Raisin in the Sun” that it has no central character (Perry disagrees: “Master of the ensemble form was perhaps her greatest gift.”) But the playwright made an interesting comparison between her character Walter Lee Younger and Arthur Miller’s character Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.” Perry cites an essay that Hansberry wrote, “Willie [sic] Loman, Walter Younger and He Who Must Live.” Perry says that the article appeared in the New York Times.  This is not only a mistake —  it was actually published in the Village Voice, on August 12, 1959 – it’s a missed opportunity to offer one more aspect of Hansberry’s personality, given the back story of the essay, as recounted by Raisin’s producer Philip Rose in his 2001 memoir “You can’t do that on Broadway! : A raisin in the sun and other theatrical improbabilities.”

The New York Times requested an essay on any subject from Hansberry, but after she handed it in, the Times  critic Brooks Atkinson edited it in a way that incensed her, and she refused to allow the paper to publish it.  She was a 28-year-old first-time playwright and here she was confronting and rejecting the chief theater critic of the New York Times.

The Voice found out about the story, and offered to print the original version in its entirety.

It is an exquisitely insightful essay, which, among other things, points out why it is that only one critic saw the connection between Willy Loman and Walter Younger – too many still see any black man as an exotic.

“We have grown accustomed to the dynamics of ‘Negro’ personality as expressed by white authors. Thus de Emperor, de Lawd and of course Porgy still haunt our frame of reference when a new character emerges,” referring to The Emperor Jones, The Green Pastures, and Porgy and Bess. America, she continues, “long ago fell in love with the image of the simple, lovable and glandular ‘Negro.” We all know that Catfish Row was never intended to slander anyone; it was intended as a mental haven for readers and audiences who could bask in the unleashed passions of those ‘lucky ones’ for whom abandonment was apparently permissible…Nobody really finds oppression and/or poverty tolerable. If we ever destroy the image of the black people who do supposedly find those things tolerable in America, then that much-touted ‘guilt’ which allegedly haunts most middle class white Americans with regard to the Negro question would become unendurable. It would also mean the death of a dubious literary tradition, but it would undoubtedly and more significantly help toward the more rapid transformation of the status of a people who have never found their imposed misery very charming.”

These elegant, erudite, witty, well-reasoned and impassioned sentences – none of which are quoted in “Looking for Lorraine” — demonstrate Hansberry’s equally masterful command of the history of American theater and of American racial attitudes, and why her activism and her intellect and sexuality and her playwriting are all together, inseparable, in this one woman who made such a difference.


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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