Writer Lorraine Hansberry

Pre-note:  We just spend 5 days in Ashland, OR at The Shakespeare Festival but before we left home my husband looked up the play “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” of the 3 plays we were to see this title did not register – so did some research on this play.  According to our speaker the original  title for this play was “Up Yours Albee” a person Lorraine really disliked.


Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born in 1930 in Chicago – Her family was a politically active and well-connected African-American family.  She was the youngest of 4 children and the granddaughter of a freed slave – her father Carl was a successful real estate agent and banker in then segregated Chicago.  He converted large homes into small apartments and rented them to African-Americans that had migrated from the south.  Her mother, Nannie was a society matron that hosted major cultural and literary figures.     Hansberry was 8 when the family moved into an all white neighborhood – racial problems happened – they were told to move by a state judge but after a 2 year fight and an appeal to the Supreme Court the order was reversed.   Lorraine attended private segregated school where she was frequently taunted.  She had a short life dying in 1965 at the age of 34.   Lorraine lived her life around art and activism.    She attended University of Wisconsin for two years majoring in art and journalism – while there she saw a play by Sean O’Casey “Juno and the Paycock” – this play change her direction in life – she then moved to New York where she enrolled in the New School of social Research.  She wrote essays and reviews for Freedom, a magazine started by Robert Robeson, a famous singer and activist – she became a sought after speaker.   In the early 1950’s she began writing play while living in New York and in 1957, she completed “A Raisin in the Sun” , a play about a poor black family living in Chicago who moved into a resistant all white neighborhood mirroring her own family’s experience.  A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959 to instant acclaim and won Hansberry the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.  The New York Times stated that this play changed American Theater forever. In 1953 she married Robert Nemiroft, a Jewish writer who later became her producer – she divorced Robert (1963) to live a lesbian life – they stayed friends.  after her death Robert helped put Les Blancs on stage after a short time he pulled the play, he was the executor of her estate,  the family still must approve any changes made to her writings.  She then began to write in support of lesbians and against homophobia, equating all struggles for freedom and civil rights. In 1963 while working on The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window and Les Blancs  she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer – by the time Window was in rehearsal she was seriously ill.  Window opened on October 15, 1964 but closed 101 days later, which was shortly after her death on January 12, 1965.  The critics were less than pleased with the play but because of Lorraine’s death re-write parts could not be done.

When Lorraine started writing plays, existentialism became the dominant philosophy of the decade.  In 1961, critic Martin Esslin published “The Theater of the Absurd” this was never a formal movement but what bound these playwrites together was their attempt to express the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought.

Quotes:  Write if you will, but write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be and must be–if there is a world.  Lorraine Hansberry, 1964 address to the winners of a United Negro College Fund writing contest.

A Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is a strange play – a lot of turmoil, many lives breaking apart as they are presently living them and unhappy with the outcome in many ways.  The sign that is in Sidney’s newspaper office window is a campaign sign for a friend – Sidney unable to hold a job or do a private business (loser as they call him) is redeemed when his friend wins.   It did spark a lively discussion after the play and it is not likely to be forgotten soon.


2 Responses to “Writer Lorraine Hansberry”

  1. 1 Sandra Wagner May 24, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    The 3 plays we saw were unrelated to each other – 2 comedies and this play. I have not looked up her 3rd play but have wondered if she would have continued with dysfunctional families and political issues.

  2. 2 olganorris May 20, 2014 at 2:39 am

    Sandy, you intrigued me and also frustrated me with this article to go to hunt some more information on the play you saw. I had read A Raisin in the Sun as part of a drama course I did in 1969, but had not studied Hansberry and never really thought about her since.
    Is there a revival now? Was the play that you saw part of a programme of plays with similar messages? Or were they of that date? Hansberry seems to have been interested in a complex number of characters’ journeys (according to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sign_in_Sidney_Brustein's_Window)
    I’m afraid that I feel inadequate to make any comment on your article, but thank you for the diversion.

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