… never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage.
It is such a great play that even with a limited actor like Sean Combs playing the lead it is still powerful.
The play is about a black family that buys a house in a white suburb – something her own family did. The first two acts are kind of slow but the last act about moving day is pure, utter genius.
In 1961 it was made into a Hollywood film starring Sidney Poitier, who had played the lead on Broadway. She wrote the screenplay.
Her two other main plays are “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”, which was on Broadway in 1964 but was not a hit, and “Les Blancs”.
Some of her writings were made into an autobiography after her death, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (1969). James Baldwin wrote a beautiful introduction, “Sweet Lorraine”.
Incomplete works at the time of her death:
- “Toussant”, an opera
- “All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors”, an autobiographical novel
She was also thinking of doing plays on Pharaoh Akhnaton, Mary Wollstonecraft and Charles Chesnutt’s “The Marrow of Tradition” (1901).
Born on Chicago’s Southside. her family moved to a white suburb when she was eight. Angry whites gathered in front of their house. A brick was thrown through the window that narrowly missed her. The police were unwilling to protect them. Later the state supreme court ordered them out of the house.
In 1948 she went to the University of Wisconsin. There she became interested in left-wing politics and theatre, studying Ibsen and Strindberg.
In 1950 she dropped out and headed for New York. There she took courses at the New School and, for three years, wrote regularly for Paul Robeson’s Freedom. Later she taught school in Harlem and took part in protests. At one protest she met Robert Nemiroff, whom she married in 1953. In 1956 he wrote a hit song with a friend (“Cindy, Oh, Cindy”) which allowed her to become a full-time writer. She started writing “A Raisin in the Sun”.
In 1960 she wrote “The Drinking Gourd”, a television show for NBC about slavery. NBC never aired it because it was too violent and too “divisive”. But you can read it in “Lorraine Hansberry: The Collected Last Plays” (1983).
In 1962 she joined SNCC and a year later she and James Baldwin went to see Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney General, to try to get him to understand race in America. In time their words sunk in.
In 1963 she began to lose her strength: the doctors said she had pancreatic cancer. Two years later she was dead – at age 34. Over 600 came to her funeral in Harlem.
Her going did not so much make me lonely as make me realize how lonely we were.