Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind A Raisin in the Sun

Near the end of Charles J. Shields’ biography of Lorraine Hansberry, the third such book I’ve read in as many years, the author mentions the five-story townhouse near Washington Square Park that Hansberry bought with the money she earned from the success of her play “A Raisin in the Sun.” It was her home for the final five years of her life, until her death in 1965 at the age of 34.  Curious, I walked by the building, and discovered a plaque about her from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation:

“The first African American woman to write a play performed on Broadway,” it begins, then talks about how some of the elements of “A Raisin in the Sun” are based on her parents’ life — how “their purchase of a home in a racially restricted Chicago neighborhood” led to a 1940 Supreme Court decision in their favor. She moved to New York City in 1950, the plaque says, wrote for “Paul Robeson’s Pan Africanist newspaper, Freedom,” married “producer” Robert Nemiroff, but “Later, she was involved with the nation’s first lesbian rights organization, The Daughters of Bilitis.” She inspired Nina Simone’s song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

The plaque is enough to explain Lorraine Hansberry’s appeal to biographers – a full and varied life, tragically cut short —  and hints at some of the complexities and contradictions that Shields dwells on in Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind A Raisin in the Sun (Henry Holt, and 368 pages.)

Shields’ biography is the latest in a remarkable resurgence of interest that began in 2018 with “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” (a two-hour documentary available on Amazon Prime) followed by Imani Perry’s book Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry , and last year’s Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry by Soyica Diggs Colbert.

Ironically, the appeal that her life story holds for biographers like Shields creates something of a downside for theater lovers. It’s hard to escape the unspoken implication that the person is more complex and relevant than her plays. 

That’s unfortunate. As we enter the final month of a Broadway season that has showcased an unprecedented number of African American playwrights and librettists (including Hansberry’s one-time friend and collaborator, the late Alice Childress),  it seems a good time to appreciate Hansberry’s value specifically as a playwright.

Admittedly, Shields’ look at the broad spectrum of her colorful life is well-researched, full of incident, and blunter than usual in highlighting its fascinating contradictions. Hansberry’s parents were wealthy Republicans; her father made his money, according to Shields, as a slumlord. At the same time, they were civil rights activists who were egalitarian enough to send little Lorraine to public school. But on the first day of kindergarten they dressed their five-year-old in a white fur coat with matching hood and muff, which provoked her classmates to push her into the mud. Although she idolized her father, who died when she was 16,  Hansberry became a Marxist whose radical activism generated a 1,000-page FBI file. 

She married a white man — a fellow radical, hit song writer and editor at a publishing house before he became her producer — at a time when interracial relationships earned stares, even in the Village, and their partnership (if not their marriage) lasted until her death – and beyond.   Robert Nemiroff was not just her husband; he was her champion. While still married to him, she began writing letters and articles under a pseudonym in The Ladder, a pioneering lesbian magazine, and started dating women.

It’s only in the last quarter of the biography that Shields focuses on Hansberry’s playwriting, but there is enough spread through the earlier pages to piece together a portrait of a theater artist as a young woman. Debate was her forte in high school, but the “k-pow!” of theater (as she would later put it) began when she saw a production of Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock” her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin – an event of lasting significance in her life. She befriended one of the actresses, and hired another one to star in a “Progressive Theater” she organized to raise funds for Henry Wallace’s campaign for president against Harry Truman in 1948 (Among the shows she put together was “Lysistrata” with an all-Black cast.) A decade later, the influence of O’Casey’s play on “A Raisin in the Sun” was so pronounced – as  Hansberry herself admitted and Shields demonstrates – that a Black theater critic named Samuel A. Boyea wrote to O’Casey, then 80 years old, that Hansberry’s “debt” to O’Casey should be “a huge monetary one.” (O’Casey, happy that he influenced her, didn’t agree he was owed anything.) 

Through progressive circles, Hansberry befriended the actor Douglas Turner Ward. When he wrote a play entitled “The Trial of Willie McGee” (never produced) it inspired both Hansberry and Lonnie Elder to try their own hand at playwriting. But even then, Broadway had not seemed to be in her wheelhouse, in any way: “She was excited when she was hired as a production secretary on a Broadway play. But her chief responsibility, she found out, was serving coffee. She quit at the end of her first day.”

Shields is diligent in setting the scene for the eventual and unlikely commercial triumph of “A Raisin in the Sun,” which arguably began when Hansberry, living the bohemian life, found summer employment  as the “lawn program director” at a progressive summer camp called Camp Unity, where she met and befriended a former baritone turned record producer named Philip Rose. Years later,  he was among the friends she and Bob invited over for a dinner of spaghetti and banana cream pie and to listen to her work in progress, as she read an early draft of what was then called “The Crystal Stair” (from a line in a Langston Hughes poem, “Mother to Son”; the title was eventually changed to a line from a different Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem”)

Rose called the next day and said he wanted to produce the play, although he had no experience producing theater. For a second opinion, he arranged for Hansberry to read the play again, this time for Sidney Poitier, a rising actor whom Rose knew because he had recorded an album of poetry for Rose’s record label. “The young actor seemed both ‘affected and entertained.’ ..He wanted to know who the playwright was. No one would say. He tried to guess. ‘He began by naming the many black writers we mutually knew, starting with Alice Childress, going on to John Killens, followed by Langston Hughes. And as Lorraine and I went from shaking our heads to broadening our smiles to laughing loudly, he shouted with us, simultaneously and incredulously, ‘Lorraine Hansberry?!’” 

Rose held close to 80 readings of “A Raisin in the Sun” to finance the production, eventually attracting 147 first-time and small-time investors.

Meanwhile, Hansberry was so frustrated with her progress with the play, that she stuck the unfinished manuscript in the fireplace, intent on burning it; Nemiroff retrieved it, waited a few days, and put it back on her desk. Seeing it, she got back to work.

While the behind-the-scenes story of the play has been told before, it’s a lively read here. There are a few stumbles, though, in the telling. Without offering any elaboration or documentation, he questions whether Lloyd Richards was more than just Hansberry’s director. “How much of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ was Hansberry and how much Richards is unknown; the original manuscript was lost.” It’s not the only unsubstantiated comment (aka cheap shot) in the biography: Bob and Lorraine had a “codependent relationship from which neither of them would ever break free.”

There is some mention of a couple of unproduced plays prior to “A Raisin in the Sun,” as well as “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” her sophomore Broadway effort, which closed on the day she died, but little mention of her posthumously produced ones. Hansberry is quoted as talking about “the near mathematical discipline and demands of dramaturgy,” but we’re given few insights into her craft, little critical analysis, and less critical advocacy. Shields cites playwright and poet Amira Baraka as having dismissed Hansberry’s play as  “middle class” and assimilationist. But he doesn’t mention that Baraka changed his mind, in an essay entitled “A Critical Reevaluation: A Raisin in the Sun’s Enduring Passion.” That essay is excerpted in the introduction by Robert Nemiroff in a 1994 edition of “A Raisin in the Sun,” with scenes restored that had been cut out of the original Broadway production and the film. Rereading the play is surely still the best way of learning about Lorraine Hansberry.

For more about Lorraine Hansberry’s body of writing, check out Works: The Lorraine Hansberry Collection from the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust website.

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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