Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison, but found college uninspiring and left in 1950 to pursue her career as a writer in New York City, where she attended The New School. She worked on the staff of the black newspaper Freedom under the auspices of Paul Robeson, and worked with W. E. B. DuBois, whose office was in the same building. A Raisin in the Sun was written at this time, and was a huge success. It was the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. At 29 years, she became the youngest American playwright and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. While many of her other writings were published in her lifetime - essays, articles, and the text for the SNCC book The Movement, the only other play given a contemporary production was The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window.
In 1961, Hansberry was set Vinnette Carroll as the director of the musical, Kicks and Co, after its try-out at Chicago's McCormick Place. It was written by Oscar Brown, Jr. and featured an interracial cast including Lonnie Sattin, Nichelle Nichols, Vi Velasco, Al Freeman, Jr., Zabeth Wilde and Burgess Meredith in the title role of Mr. Kicks. A satire involving miscegenation, the $400,000 production was co-produced by her husband Robert Nemiroff; despite a warm reception in the Windy City, the show never made it to Broadway.
After a long battle with pancreatic cancer she died on January 12, 1965, at the age of 34. According to James Baldwin, Hansberry was prescient about many of the increasingly troubling conditions in the world, and worked to remedy them with literature. Baldwin believed "it is not at all farfetched to suspect that what she saw contributed to the strain which killed her, for the effort to which Lorraine was dedicated is more than enough to kill a man." Hansberry's funeral was held in Harlem on January 15, 1965. Paul Robeson gave her eulogy. The presiding reverend, Eugene Callender, recited messages from James Baldwin and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. which read: "Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn." She is buried at Asbury United Methodist Church Cemetery in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window ran for 101 performances on Broadway and closed the night she died. Her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff became the executor for several unfinished manuscripts. He added minor changes to complete the play Les Blancs, which Julius Lester termed her best work, and he adapted many of her writings into the play, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which was the longest-running Off Broadway play of the 1968-1969 season. It appeared in book form the following year under the title, To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words.
She left behind an unfinished novel and several other plays, including The Drinking Gourd and What Use Are Flowers?, with a range of content, from slavery to a post apocalyptic future.
Raisin, a musical based on A Raisin in the Sun, opened in New York in 1973, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical, with the book by Nemiroff, music by Judd Woldin, and lyrics by Robert Britten.
A Raisin in the Sun was revived on Broadway in 2004 and received a Tony Award nomination for Best Revival of a Play. The cast included Sean "P Diddy" Combs as Walter Lee Younger Jr., Phylicia Rashad (Tony Award winner for Best Actress) and Audra McDonald (Tony Award winner for Best Featured Actress). It was produced for television in 2008 with the same cast; the production garnered two NAACP Image awards.
Hansberry contributed to the understanding of abortion, discrimination, and Africa. She joined the Daughters of Bilitis and contributed letters to their magazine, The Ladder, in 1957 that addressed feminism and homophobia.
In San Francisco, The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, which specializes in original stagings and revivals of African-American theatre, is named in her honor. Singer and pianist Nina Simone, who was a close friend of Hansberry, used the title of her unfinished play to write a civil rights-themed song "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" together with Weldon Irvine. The single reached the top 10 of the R&B charts. A studio recording by Simone was released as a single and the first live recording on October 26, 1969 was captured on Black Gold (1970).
She is the first cousin of director and playwright Shauneille Perry, whose eldest child is named after her. Her grandniece is actress Taye Hansberry. Her cousin is the flautist, percussionist, and composer Aldridge Hansberry. Lincoln University's first-year female dormitory is named Lorraine Hansberry Hall. There is a school in the Bronx called Lorraine Hansberry Academy and an elementary school in St. Albans, New York named after the famous author and playwright.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Lorraine Hansberry on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
Both A Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window are staples of high school English classrooms. A Raisin in the Sun famously opens with Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem".
There were people whose social analysis had its origins in multiple identities, especially the experience of being both black and homosexual. One example is playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun (1959) and The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964), which included an openly homosexual character and dealt with issues of race, freedom, and responsibility. In a letter to The Ladder in 1957, Hansberry argued that in the homophile movement, "there may be women to emerge who will be able to formulate a new and possible concept that homosexual persecution and condemnation has at its roots not only social ignorance, but a philosophically active anti-feminist dogma." --A Queer History of the United States by Michael BronskiFurther Readings:
Young, Black, and Determined: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry by Patricia C. McKissack & Fredrick L. McKissack
Reading level: Ages 10 and up
Hardcover: 160 pages
Publisher: Holiday House; 1st edition (April 1997)
Amazon: Young, Black, and Determined: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry
A biography of the black playwright who received great recognition for her work at an early age.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black (Signet Classics) by Lorraine Hansberry
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Signet Classics; Reissue edition (January 4, 2011)
Amazon: To Be Young, Gifted and Black
This is the story of a young woman born in Chicago who came to New York, won fame with her play, A Raisin in the Sun--and went on to new heights of artistry before her tragic death. In turns angry, loving, bitter, laughing, and defiantly proud, the story, voice, and message are all Lorraine Hansberry's own, coming together in one of the major works of the black experience in mid-century America.
Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism by Erik S. McDuffie
Paperback: 328 pages
Publisher: Duke University Press Books (June 6, 2011)
Amazon: Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism
Sojourning for Freedom portrays pioneering black women activists from the early twentieth century through the 1970s, focusing on their participation in the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA) between 1919 and 1956. Erik S. McDuffie considers how women from diverse locales and backgrounds became radicalized, joined the CPUSA, and advocated a pathbreaking politics committed to black liberation, women’s rights, decolonization, economic justice, peace, and international solidarity. McDuffie explores the lives of black left feminists, including the bohemian world traveler Louise Thompson Patterson, who wrote about the “triple exploitation” of race, gender, and class; Esther Cooper Jackson, an Alabama-based civil rights activist who chronicled the experiences of black female domestic workers; and Claudia Jones, the Trinidad-born activist who emerged as one of the Communist Party’s leading theorists of black women’s exploitation. Drawing on more than forty oral histories collected from veteran black women radicals and their family members, McDuffie examines how these women negotiated race, gender, class, sexuality, and politics within the CPUSA. In Sojourning for Freedom, he depicts a community of radical black women activist intellectuals who helped to lay the foundation for a transnational modern black feminism.
Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America by Eliz Brown Guillory
Paperback: 184 pages
Publisher: Praeger (March 20, 1990)
Amazon: Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America
This is the first book-length study of black American women playwrights. It will be useful to scholars in the fields of black and women's literature and an excellent source of background reading in graduate and undergraduate courses on American women playwrights. The author's training as both a scholar and a playwright is evident in this book. Choice
This important contribution to African American and women's studies analyzes the dramatic works of America's black women playwrights. The plays of such writers as Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ntozake Shange are examined in light of the tradition from which they emerged. Brown-Guillory begins by tracing the development of African American theater with its roots in African theatrics, then moves on to discuss women playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance such as Angelina Weld Grimke, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, May Miller, Mary Burrill, Myrtle Smith Livingston, Ruth Gaines-Shelton, Eulalie Spence, and Marita Bonner. Though rarely anthologized and infrequently made the subject of critical interpretation, asserts the author, the plays of these early twentieth-century black women offer much to the American theater in the way of content, tonal and structural form, characterization, as well as dialogue, and were instrumental in paving a way for black playwrights from the 1950s to the present.
More LGBT History at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Gay Classics
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