The Theater World Has Never Understood Lorraine Hansberry

The subversive intent of the playwright’s art and activism has long been underestimated.

Lorraine Hansberry pictured in her apartment in New York City
Rather than a champion of the American dream, Hansberry was a critic of middle-class property values who challenged American exceptionalism. (David Attie / Getty)

If you remember A Raisin in the Sun as a play about a family that decides to buy a house, you might be surprised that the author thought its crucial line was about African decolonization. Lorraine Hansberry’s favorite character wasn’t Lena Younger, the stalwart widow who wants to use her husband’s life-insurance payment to move her family out of a cramped apartment on Chicago’s South Side. Nor was it Lena’s daughter, Beneatha, Hansberry’s playfully mocking portrait of her own skeptical young-adult self. It was Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian intellectual who courts Beneatha and helps her place her family’s struggles in relation to African freedom movements. “He gives the statement of the play,” Hansberry told Studs Terkel when Raisin opened in Chicago, her hometown. Asagai counsels a clear-eyed faith in progress, however nonlinear; self-determination precludes cynicism. “He knows that first, before you can start talking about what’s wrong with independence, get it. And I’m with him.”

Rather than a champion of the American dream, Hansberry was a critic of middle-class property values who challenged American exceptionalism and advocated for an international approach to Black freedom. But as a number of recent Hansberry appreciations have shown—among them, Imani Perry’s scholarly third-person memoir, Looking for Lorraine, and Soyica Diggs Colbert’s intellectual biography, Radical Vision—the subversive intent of Hansberry’s art and activism has long been underestimated. Early reviews of Raisin, which debuted in 1959 and made Hansberry the first Black woman with a show on Broadway, were quick to domesticate her. “Housewife’s Play Is a Hit,” one headline proclaimed, describing its author as attractive but inexperienced, a former department-store clerk with no previous publications. Raisin was perceived as daring enough for the FBI to dispatch its agents to gauge whether it promulgated propaganda (perhaps in part because it attracted large Black audiences). They decided it didn’t pose a threat. This, Colbert implies, was a misreading.

Today that misreading continues, with criticism of the recent production of Raisin at the Public Theater in New York City. The show drew some heat for unsettling the play’s domestic setting, moving beyond a naturalist frame, and ending with an image of racial violence, as though the director, Robert O’Hara, were imposing contemporary activism on Hansberry’s family drama. In fact, the production made explicit the currents in Hansberry’s work that were always simmering. At 29, Hansberry was already a practicing journalist in the Black radical tradition, the prize pupil of W. E. B. Du Bois. She documented the early civil-rights movement and also wrote for Paul Robeson’s Freedom newspaper. She fought to unite racial-justice efforts with workers’ struggles, feminist advocacy, and queer community, contributing to journals on each topic. With Raisin, Hansberry had written a play about the fight against white supremacy worldwide—fully connected to battles over access to housing—that ended not with reassuring harmony but with the very real threat of violent backlash.

In fact, a pre-Broadway version of Hansberry’s script ended with the Youngers armed against their reactionary new neighbors. (That was Hansberry’s own childhood memory of moving into a white neighborhood: her mother protecting the family with a pistol after a brick crashed through their window and almost hit Lorraine’s head.) Although the last stage direction calls for Lena Younger to depart her old apartment with “a final desperate look,” productions of Raisin typically end on a note of cheerful resolution, an assimilationist’s dream no longer deferred. O’Hara, however, didn’t allow audiences this comfort, challenging them with a final tableau that signals the likely reception the Youngers have in store. Nor did he confine the play to a tidy domesticity favored in many Raisin stagings; he summoned the ghost of Lena’s husband and broke from realism by using voice-overs and direct addresses to the audience. Though these choices have drawn criticism, too, you could see them fulfilling Hansberry’s oft-stated interest in moving theater beyond photographic naturalism into the realm of political possibility. (Perry wrote in The Atlantic that O’Hara’s staging came closest to Hansberry’s intentions of any production she’s seen.)

A scene from Robert O'Hara's rendition of "A Raisin in the Sun"
Robert O’Hara didn’t confine the play to a tidy domesticity favored in many Raisin stagings. (Joan Marcus)

Raisin’s success overshadowed Hansberry’s even more revolutionary works, which remained unproduced at the time of her early death from cancer at age 34: a play about the fight to rid Africa of European colonists (Les Blancs), a TV script about white liberals’ complicity in slavery (The Drinking Gourd), a play about a white-supremacist coup to counteract the gains of Reconstruction (Marrow). These all end with white characters who benefit from the status quo befuddled that their good intentions aren’t enough to redeem them or to temper the need for Black revolution. Today, when many white American liberals condemn racism but question tactics to disrupt the systems that perpetuate it, Hansberry’s vision is still bracing. She was willing to consider any means necessary; her father had pursued legal redress for Chicago’s racist real-estate restrictions, but even his victory before the Supreme Court hadn’t desegregated the city. “We have to find some way with these dialogues,” she told a forum in 1964, “to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.”

How to do it? Hansberry was well aware that the dialogues she offered onstage and off could end up like her Ping-Pong game, which, she once told a reporter, “dazzles everybody and defeats no one.” She took up the challenge in her only other play to be produced in her lifetime: The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which will receive its first major New York revival (starring Oscar Isaac) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this winter. Fans of Raisin were perplexed that Hansberry followed up a play about a Black family in Chicago with one about a white Jewish intellectual in Greenwich Village. It wasn’t a hit, and it closed when she died. But the play’s arc, in which Sidney must abandon the luxury of avoiding politics and recognize the need for a broader freedom fight, was central to Hansberry’s theater of radical conversion.

Whereas Raisin packages questions of freedom, race, gender, and economics in the familiar architecture of an American family drama, Sign tackles more experimental concerns in form and subject matter. Hansberry surrounds Sidney, a progressive newspaperman, with a panoply of bohemians who each embodies a facet of her own identity: a gay playwright, an aspiring artist, a Black activist. Sidney prides himself on his superior comprehension, but he has to learn how to integrate his ideals with those of people who are different from him. At one point, the play dissolves into a spoken-word fever dream that Hansberry called “an absurdist orgy”: “a disintegration of reality to parallel the disintegration in Sidney’s world.”

What’s remarkable about the play, fractured though it might appear, is Hansberry’s ability to anatomize her own concerns through a cast of witty, compromised, satirized, and sympathetic characters. “Do I remain a revolutionary?” Hansberry wrote in her journal as her health was failing her. “Intellectually—without a doubt. But am I prepared to give my body to the struggle?” She once confessed a wish that she could run off to Angola and become an ambulance driver; Sidney expresses the same fantasy. He dreams of heroic action, of taking up an ancestral “sword of the Maccabees” to conquer the world’s injustices, but instead, he pops a tranquilizer; he’s more Hamlet than Hercules. By the end of the play, however, he declares his opposition to all forms of oppressive power, even as his relationships are rocked by loss and betrayal. In recommitting Sidney to the fight, Hansberry also recommitted herself.

Hansberry’s greatest conversion attempt came through a dialogue beyond the theater, at the Manhattan apartment of Robert Kennedy, then the attorney general, in May 1963. At Kennedy’s invitation, Hansberry’s friend James Baldwin had convened a group of artists and civil-rights leaders to discuss the federal government’s responsibility to check police violence against protesters on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. When Kennedy turned away from Jerome Smith, a Freedom Rider, to hobnob with Harry Belafonte and others, Hansberry took him to task. “Mr. Attorney General,” she said, perched on an ottoman. “The only man you should be listening to is that man over there. That is the voice of 22 million people.” As Baldwin recollected, she demanded a commitment from Kennedy to protect Black students entering white schools. “I am very worried,” she concluded, “about the state of the civilization which produced that photograph of the white cop standing on that Negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.” Kennedy was incensed at what he perceived as an emotional attack on the administration. But the next month, President John F. Kennedy ordered the National Guard to escort Black students in Alabama and announced that he was sending the first civil-rights act to Congress.

Hansberry’s heirs are legion. August Wilson said he couldn’t have written without her. Nina Simone credited Hansberry with radicalizing her music (“It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution—real girls’ talk,” Simone recalled of their friendship). Amiri Baraka, though he initially dismissed Raisin as too conservative, later heralded it as truly revolutionary. Dominique Morisseau and Lynn Nottage, two Tony-nominated Black playwrights from the previous Broadway season, both cite Hansberry as an inspiration. Nottage helped organize the Lorraine Hansberry Initiative, which offers a scholarship for the living expenses of female and nonbinary playwrights of color attending graduate school. The initiative also commissioned a sculpture of Hansberry by Alison Saar that’s traveling around the country this year. A figure of the writer is surrounded by five chairs, each representing a facet of Hansberry’s life, on which the public can sit and reflect: an office chair for her journalism, a stool for her lesbian and feminist activism, a modernist chair for her playwriting, a Brentwood chair for her childhood home. The final chair is the ottoman from the attorney general’s apartment.