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Lorraine Hansberry: Playwright, Dramatist, Activist


Lorraine Hansberry: Playwright, Dramatist, Activist

Lorraine Hansberry was born the youngest of four to Carl Hansberry and Nannie Hansberry in Chicago, IL on May 19, 1930.

In 1937, her father Carl—founder of Lake Street Bank, one of Chicago’s first Black-owned financial institutions—bought a house located at 6140 S. Rhodes Avenue in Washington Park which expressly forbade blacks. Neighbors threw bricks through the family’s windows within a week of their moving in, leading to a three-year legal battle culminating in the Supreme Court decision Hansberry v. Lee which led the way for the disbandment of restrictive covenants based on race.

I was born on the South Side of Chicago. I was born black and female. I was born in a depression after one world war, and I came into my adolescence during another. While I was still in my teens, the first atom bombs were dropped on human beings on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and by the time I was twenty-three years old my government and that of the Soviet Union had entered actively into the worst conflict of nerves in human history—the Cold War.

She attended Englewood High School and excelled in English, history and debate. Following, she continued her studies at the University of Wisconsin studying stage design, drama, art and literature.

She became the first African American, the youngest playwright, the fifth woman to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best play of the season on April 7, 1959 for her play A Raisin in the Sun, which addressed equal rights in work/housing, and freedom. Her main concern was racism, but the play also contains a strong thread of feminism. It was the first play by a black woman to appear on Broadway in 1959 and ran for 19 months.

The play’s director, Lloyd Richard, was Broadway’s first black director and recommended by Sidney Poitier, an unknown actor at the time and friend.

A Raisin in the Sun opened March 11, 1959… five years since the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education desegragated public schools, and four years since the Montgomery bus boycott.

Among those who influenced her were Sean O’Casey and his play Juno and the Paycock, which tells the story of a poor family and the Irish struggle for freedom from British control in the early 20th century, also W.E.B Du Bois. She would study black history under him at the Jefferson School of Social Science.

In 1959, she was contracted by NBC to produce a script for a series called The Drinking Gourd which was scheduled to air in 1961 and cover the issues that were part of the Civil War. The title symbolized the Big Dipper constellation which points to the north star that escaped slaves would follow to freedom. It was never produced.

We’ve been trying very hard… in America to pretend that this greatest conflict did not have at its base the only thing it had at its base: where person after person will write a book today and insist that slavery was not the issue! You know, they tell you it was the ‘economy’—as if that economy was not based on slavery. It’s become a great semantic game to try and get this particular blot out of our minds, and people spend volumes discussing battles of the Civil War, and which army was crossing which river at five minutes to two, and how their swords were hanging, but the slavery issue we have tried to get rid of.

In 1963, she organized a rally to raise money for voter registration in the South. A portion of the funds raised from the rally was used to purchase the station wagon driven by James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman who were kidnapped and murdered in 1964 by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

She spoke in Support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and at the Southern Leadership Conference.

Other works include Les Blancs, a pun on French playwright Jean Genet’s Les Negres, where she explores the consequences of racism and the system of colonialism.

In The Sign on Sidney Brustein’s Window, which began as a musical titled The Sign in Jenny Reed’s Window, she deals with the prejudice against homosexuals, blacks, Jews and women. She examines the need for equality and mutual respect between partners, investigates the cost of drug addiction to society and blacks, and questions black nationalism because it isolates races. The Sign on Sidney Brustein’s Window, her final play, opened on October 15, 1964.

Lorraine Hansberry died of cancer on January 12, 1965. Her last recorded words are those of a spiritual: “My Lord calls me. He calls me by thunder. I ain’t got long to stay here.” The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window closed that night.

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Works cited:

  • “Flashback: A Chicago Family Defied a Racist Real Estate Covenant. the Backlash and Legal Fight Inspired 'A Raisin in the Sun.'.” Chicago Tribune, https://www.chicagotribune.com/history/ct-opinion-flashback-hansberry-house-restrictive-convenant-20200710-dslzaju35ngmpghgwazpcodosq-story.html.
  • Leeson, Richard M. Lorraine Hansberry: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Greenwood Press, 1997.
  • Tripp, Janet. The Importance of Lorraine Hansberry. Lucent Books, 1998.

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