In the almost 50 years since her play opened in Chicago at the Blackstone Theatre on Feb. 10, 1959, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun has remained plump and pertinent. The first television version of her award-winning play will air Feb. 25, reprising most of the cast from Kenny Leon's 2004 Broadway revival, including Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs and Phylicia Rashad. The 1959 version starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Ivan Dixon was the first play by an African-American woman on Broadway and garnered the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Play of the Year.
A Raisin in the Sun was chosen in 2003 for the One Book, One Chicago reading program and has been performed almost constantly throughout the area in recent years. Goodman Theatre had revivals in 1983 and 2000. Still controversial in 2006, Oak Park and River Forest High School was up in arms over how to maintain the community's commitment to equality and diversity while presenting 'Raisin,' an all-Black play. Some parents demanded 'color-blind casting.' Director Ellen Boyer was quoted as saying, 'You simply can't have whites in these roles. In order to be universal, you have to get specific.'
Hansberry, who died of pancreatic cancer in New York City at age 35, was a native Chicagoan who attended Englewood High School and the Art Institute of Chicago. She then spent two years at the University of Wisconsin before deciding to become a writer. Born in 1930, she was the fourth child of Nannie Perry and Carl Hansberry, a realtor who challenged a restrictive housing covenant ( that prevented Blacks from moving into the Washington Park-Kenwood neighborhood ) all the way to a unanimous victory in the United States Supreme Court.
Hansberry moved to New York in 1950 and began writing for Paul Robeson's legendary 'Freedom' newspaper. In 1957, she joined the first national lesbian rights organization, the Daughters of Bilitis ( DOB ) , identifying herself as a 'heterosexually married lesbian'. In 1954, she married Robert Nemiroff ( whose family owned Potpourri, a restaurant in the Village where Hansberry had worked waiting tables ) . They separated in 1957 and divorced in 1964—months before her death. He would become her literary executor and would compile 'To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words,' published with an introduction by James Baldwin.
In 1958 DOB founders Martin and Lyon on the final leg of a promotional/organizational trip cross-country, visited Hansberry in New York. According to Marcia Gallo in her history of DOB 'Different Daughters' ( 2006 ) , in their eagerness to meet a real celebrity, they woke the 'smart, pretty and gracious' playwright at 7 AM. Hansberry found time for them even though she was busily readying 'Raisin' for its Broadway opening. She expressed regret at not being able to 'get more involved' with DOB.
In the years following the production of 'Raisin,' Hansberry would move in a circle of other closeted lesbians who shared a sub-rosa social life in Greenwich Village. Novelist Marijane Meaker ( who wrote lesbian pulp fiction as Vin Packer & Ann Aldrich and children's books as M. E. Kerr ) noted in her 2003 memoir that she knew Hansberry, her lover, and her gay friends. Hansberry invited Meaker ( who had a tumultuous relationship with modernist writer Patricia Highsmith during that period ) to a pre-release screening of the 1961 Sidney Poitier film version of 'Raisin'. The movie took a special award at the Cannes Film Festival.
A respected Chicago attorney and one of the founders of CORE, Jewel LaFontant, knew the Hansberry family in the 1930s. She was four years older than Lorraine and a friend of her sister Mamie. LaFontant recollects ( in 'An Autobiography of Black Chicago' by Dempsey Travis ) being in the front room of the Hansberry's apartment at 61st and Rhodes when bricks came flying through the window. Her father, attorney C. Francis Stradford, would represent the Hansberrys in their case against restrictive covenants in the Washington Park area throughout the courts. LaFontant evinced shock that Lorraine 'turned out to be a brilliant playwright'. She remembered her as 'spoiled' and 'born to affluence'; her other siblings could remember being poor, but by Lorraine's time the family had a chauffer, fur coats and cars. She also remembered that Lorraine had wanted to be a doctor. 'A Raisin in the Sun' deals with the similar housing issues, and the character of the daughter, Beneatha, wants to go to medical school and become a doctor.
Truman K. Gibson, Jr., in an article excerpted in Chicago History magazine from his book 'Knocking Down Barriers: My Fight for Black America,' recounts being a junior member of the team of attorneys that represented Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company ( the oldest Black-owned insurance company in Chicago and property developers in Washington Park ) , who joined the Hansberry case and underwrote the considerable expenses of pursuing the appellate process through the courts. According to Gibson, financial backing for the opposing white homeowners came from the University of Chicago.
Gibson suggests other possible influences on the play were Carl Hansberry's failed investment in a dubious downstate Illinois oil-drilling venture ( perhaps a harbinger for Walter Lee's failed liquor store scam ) , and a 'business matter' in which Hansberry was his client in a deal echoing that of the matriarch in the play inheriting $10,000 upon the death of her husband.
The Supreme Court ruling in Hansberry v. Lee, 311 US 32 ( 1940 ) , ignored the issue raised regarding the equal protection of the law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment and ruled instead on two other limited issues involved in the pleading—nonetheless, according to Gibson, 'The decision had an immediate and profound impact, igniting one of the first waves of the white flight phenomenon that was to plague Chicago and other urban centers for decades to come.'
Hansberry authored other plays and was an activist ( as Diana Marre writes in 'Notable Black American Women' ) who 'linked the struggle for gay rights, rights of people of color, and rights for women long before such terms as homophobia and feminism came into the vernacular.' In 1963, at the height of the civil-rights struggle, James Baldwin was invited by then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy to a meeting to discuss race relations. Baldwin brought with him Hansberry and several other prominent African Americans who tried to communicate their fears that, unless things changed in America, 'the fire next time' would be deadly. Hansberry is reported to have said: 'you and your brother [ JFK ] are representatives of the best that a white America can offer; and if you are insensitive to this, then there is no alternative except our going to the streets . . .' Hansberry did not live to see the fires of Detroit, Chicago's West Side or Watts; if she had, we could only speculate on what more her legacy would have become.
In 1999, Lorraine Hansberry was inducted into the City of Chicago's Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame.
Copyright 2008 Marie J. Kuda.