Lorraine Hansberry: Playwright, Author, Activist

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ARAISININTHESUN_HuntingtonTheatreCompany_06 | © The Huntington/Flickr
Chelsea Baldwin

Playwright, author, and activist Lorraine Hansberry was a woman of many talents. Her 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, took the American theater scene by storm, and it was not only the first drama by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway, but it also won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play. Though she died in 1965 at the young age of 34, her work continues to influence theater today. We take a closer look at Hansberry’s life and work.
Hansberry was born in Chicago in 1930, and contrary to the subjects of her best-known play A Raisin in the Sun, she grew up relatively comfortably in a middle-class household. However, she always identified with children of poor families, admiring their independence and spiritedness. Hansberry and her family suffered from brutal racial discrimination after moving into a white neighborhood that prohibited African-Americans from buying homes. Hansberry’s father fought these restrictions in the Supreme Court, and they were able to move in but were met with violent attacks from their white neighbors. After high school, Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin for two years before her growing interest in writing took her to the New School for Social Research in New York City.

From college onward, Hansberry became politically active. She helped integrate a dormitory at the University of Wisconsin, worked on Henry A. Wallace’s presidential campaign, and after moving to Harlem in 1951, protested the unfair evictions of African-Americans from their homes in the neighborhood. Once in New York, she also began working on the staff of Freedom, a progressive African-American newspaper published by Paul Robeson. Her writing for the newspaper covered the United States Civil Rights movement as well as global struggles. In 1957 Hansberry joined the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States, and began contributing letters about feminism and homophobia to their magazine, The Ladder. She continued to be an activist for gay rights until her death and wrote these pieces under the initials ‘LHN’.

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Hansberry completed her first and most famous play, A Raisin in the Sun, in 1957. The title came from a verse in the Langston Hughes poem, ‘Harlem‘. The play centered around the conflicts of a working-class African-American family in Chicago, and it was partly inspired by her own family’s struggles with racial discrimination. It opened on Broadway in 1959, ran for 530 performances, and in the two years that followed, was translated into 35 different languages and performed all over the world. At 29 years old, Hansberry became the youngest American playwright and the fifth woman to ever receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. Her widely acclaimed work helped pave the way for other African-American and female playwrights. The piece was adapted into a screenplay in 1961, which received a special award at the Cannes Festival. It was also adapted into a musical, Raisin, in 1973 winning the Tony Award for Best Musical.

A Raisin in the Sun 1959

Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer on January 12, 1965 at the age of 34, cutting her blossoming career short. She left behind three unfinished plays and an unfinished semi-autobiographical novel. Hansberry’s ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, completed her play titled Les Blancs and adapted many of her writings and interviews into To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which ran off-Broadway for eight months and then appeared in book form the following year under the title To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words.

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Hansberry’s influence has continued after her death, inspiring well-known songs, poems, and other creative writing. In 1999 she was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, and in 2013 she was posthumously inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre of San Francisco is named in her honor, and it specializes in original stagings and revivals of African-American theater. At Hansberry’s funeral, Reverend Martin Luther King stated: ‘Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.’
By Chelsea Baldwin

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