Lorraine Hansberry


Lorraine Hansberry in 1959. The title of “A Raisin in the Sun” comes from a Langston Hughes poem, Harlem. “What happens to a dream deferred,” the poem asks, “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun/ Does it fester like a sore and then run …. Or does it explode?”

David Attie.

A New York City writer and civil rights activist, Lorraine Hansberry became, in 1959, the first African-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway. Hansberry has given millions of readers and audience members a nuanced view into the life of a black family struggling with segregation through her groundbreaking work, “A Raisin in the Sun.”

The play was partially influenced by her family’s fight against discrimination. Born in Chicago to a middle-class family, Hansberry and her family moved into a white neighborhood when she was eight years old. Neighbors tried to force them out, and Hansberry’s father fought back, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled partially in their favor.

In 1950, after two years of college and studying art, Hansberry moved to New York City. While working as a waitress, she studied at The New School and wrote for the Freedom Journal, where she covered civil rights issues and worked with W.E.B. DuBois.

Hansberry wrote “Raisin,” rooted in her family’s exerience, to combat the stereotyping of African-American characters and to echo her family’s experience. It was completed in 1957, and two years later, it hit Broadway, when Hansberry was just 29. She became the first African-American and youngest playwright to win the New York City’s Drama Critic Award.

Hansberry died of cancer a few years later at age 34. “A Raisin in the Sun” has been translated into 35 languages, adapted into films, and was recently revived on Broadway starring Denzel Washington.

Lorraine Hansberry and actor Sidney Poitier, along with the producers and theater director for “A Raisin in the Sun.” The play’s success helped to overturn the then deep-seated belief that a play about African Americans would not earn back its initial investment.

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.

“The thing I tried to show was the many gradations of one Negro family, the clash of the old and the new, but most of all the unbelievable courage of the Negro people,” Lorraine Hansberry told The New York Times.

Top: Broadway Playbill for the 1959 production at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The original cast included Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

Bottom: The 2018 American Masters documentary, “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” directed by Tracy Heather Strain, explores the prejudice Hansberry experienced as a child, her emerging lesbian identity, and challenges she faced as a black woman.

The Film Posse.

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