Chapter 8: American Drama

Lorraine Hansberry
1930-1965

© Paul P. Reuben
June 15, 2014
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Outside Link: | The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre San Francisco |

Page Links: | Primary Works | Selected Bibliography 1980-Present | Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" Theory and the Younger Family in Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun | Study Questions | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

| A Brief Biography |

Site Links: | Chap. 8: Index | Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page |


Source:
Voices from the Gaps: LH

Deeply committed to the Black struggle for equality and human rights, Lorraine Hansberry's brilliant career as a writer was cut short by her death when she was only 35. A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award - Hansberry was the youngest and the first black writer to receive this award. Hansberry's purpose was to show "the many gradations in even one Negro family." The characters suffer, hope, dream, and triumph over the enormous barriers erected by the dominant culture. Celebrated drama critic Brook Atkinson wrote: "She has told the inner as well as the outer truths about a Negro family in Chicago. The play has vigor as well as veracity and is likely to destroy the complacency of anyone who sees it." The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window is concerned with the moral problems of a Jewish intellectual in Greenwich Village. In discussing the play, Hansberry wrote: "The silhouette of the Western intellectual poised in hesitation before the flames of involvement was an accurate symbolism of my closest friends."

Primary Works

A Raisin in the Sun (E-TEXT), 1959; The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, 1964; The Movement (a collection of with text written by Hansberry), 1964; To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, 1969; unfinished works: Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd, and What Use are Flowers.

Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Bomarito, Jessica, Jeffrey W. Hunter, & Amy Hudock. (eds.) Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2004.

Bower, Martha G. 'Color Struck' under the Gaze: Ethnicity and the Pathology of Being in the Plays of Johnson, Hurston, Childress, Hansberry, and Kennedy. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

Cheney, Anne. Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Twayne, 1984. PS3515 .A515 Z6

Fisher, Jerilyn, and Ellen S. Silber. eds. Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003.

Gold, Rachelle S. "'Education Has Spoiled Many a Good Plow Hand': How Beneatha's Knowledge Functions in A Raisin in the Sun." in Harris, Trudier & Larson, Jennifer. eds. Reading Contemporary African American Drama: Fragments of History, Fragments of Self. NY: Peter Lang, 2007.

Hannah, John M. "Signifying Raisin: Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and Wilson's Fences." in Harris, Trudier & Larson, Jennifer. eds. Reading Contemporary African American Drama: Fragments of History, Fragments of Self. NY: Peter Lang, 2007.

Black Internationalist Feminism: Women Writers of the Black Left, 1945-1995

Detail Only Available

By: Higashida, Cheryl Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P; 2011.

Jenckes, Norma. ed. New Readings in American Drama: Something's Happening Here. NY: Peter Lang, 2002.

Miller, R. Baxter. On the Ruins of Modernity: New Chicago Renaissance from Wright to Fair. Champaign, IL: Common Ground, 2012.

| Top | Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" Theory and the Younger Family in Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun

Note to Teachers: I briefly explain the "needs" theory to my students and then have them situate the Younger family at one of the "needs" levels; my students usually place the Youngers (as a unit) at levels 1, 2, or 3. When we take up individual characters, student responses range over all the levels. For example, they see Beneatha at times pleading for the elemental needs of privacy/safety (bedroom, bathroom); at others, in her various attempts to "express herself" and in her desire to go to medical school, they see her to be responding to the higher needs of esteem and self-actualization. Class discussions also reflect the students' own economic and social backgrounds. Also important is to raise the issues of race and gender and their impact on one's "needs."

Related Comments: (through an e-mail exchange; quoted with permission of Ms. Brewer)

"I like the added interest of the heirarchy. It fits well with the theme of assimilation vs Afrocentrism which we always discuss. Beneatha is a favorite character of mine. I tend toward the feminist interpretations and she is certainly an important focus in that respect. To be both female and African-American in the fifties was quite an obstacle to overcome. (It is interesting to contrast the current climate for African-American males.) It never seems to occur to Beneatha that either is an obstacle. Hers is poverty.

We also discuss the ways things have and haven't changed for African-Americans since the fifties. In that context, we look at the migration to the northern cities and why the play could not have been set in the South at that time. You would be surprised at how little my students, A-A and Euro-Am, can relate to how segregated the South was before the Civil Rights movement. Thanks for your help."

- Ms. Pamela D. Brewer, Teacher, Advanced Placement English at Brookhaven High School in Brookhaven, Mississippi.

 

5. Self-actualization
Needs: the need
to fulfill one's
unique potential
4. Esteem needs: prestige, success
3. Love needs: affection, friendship, love
2. Safety needs: to feel secure, safe, and out of danger
1. Physiological needs: to satisfy hunger, thirst, and sex drives
(Abraham H. Maslow, Personality and Motivation. New York: Harper, 1954.)

 

| Top |Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965): A Brief Biography

A Student Project by Tammy Burris

 The granddaughter of a freed slave Lorraine Hansberry became a spokesperson for black Americans. Her writings reflected her fight for black civil rights, and her views against racism and sexual and statutory discrimination. Due to her short life her legacy left only a few works but all with dramatic effect on all, no matter race or color, who came in touch with them.

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born May 19, 1930 in Chicago, Illinois the youngest by seven years, of four children. Her father, Carl A. Hansberry, was a successful real estate broker, who later contributed large sums of money to NAACP and the Urban League. Her mother, Nannie Perry, was a schoolteacher who entered politics and became a ward committeewoman (Metzger 146). When Lorraine was eight her parents moved to a white neighborhood where the experiences of discrimination led to a civil rights suit that they won. Her family was violently attacked by neighbors. At an early age she learned to fight white supremacy and that Negroes were spit at, cursed and pummeled with insults and physical acts of violence. In protest to segregation her parents sent her to public schools rather than private ones. She attended Betsy Ross Elementary School then, in 1944, she was enrolled in Englewood High School. Both schools were predominantly white. Lorraine had to fight racism from the day she walked through the doors of Betsy Ross Elementary School (Nemiroff 20). She broke the family tradition of enrolling in Southern Negro Colleges and enrolled in the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she majored in painting. She was soon to discover that her talent lay in writing not art. After two years she decided to leave the University of Wisconsin for New York City (Metzger 146).

In New York City, Lorraine worked for the Freedom, a progressive black newspaper, from 1950 to 1953. In a letter to a friend she described the paper as "the journal to Negro liberation." (Nemiroff 77) In 1953 she married Robert Nemiroff a Jewish songwriter. After marriage, she worked as a waitress and cashier writing in her spare time. In 1956 she quit working at her part time jobs and devoted all her time to her writing. This is the year she started writing The Crystal Stair a play about a struggling black family in Chicago. The play was later renamed A Raisin in the Sun taking its title from a line in Langston Hughes' poem (Metzger 146).

In 1959 A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City with a run of 530 performances. It was the first play produced on Broadway written by a black woman. Lorraine received the New York Critics' Circle award for which she was the youngest American, the first Black playwright and the fifth woman at the time to receive it. She was also named "most promising playwright" of the season by Variety's poll of New York drama critics (http://artistsrep.org/artists/a_lorraine_hansberry 1). Lorraine finished the film version of A Raisin in the Sun in 1961 starring Sidney Poitier. The film received an award at the Cannes Festival (2). In writing A Raisin in the Sun Lorraine instilled her values of equality evident in an interview that she did after the play debuted...

An interviewer asked, "This is not really a Negro play; why, this could be about anybody! It's a play about people! What is your reaction? What do say?"

She answered "Well, I hadn't noticed the contradiction because I'd always been under the impression that Negroes are people. But actually it's an excellent question, because invariably that has been the point of reference Nemiroff." (113)

In 1963 Lorraine Hansberry became very active in the civil rights movement in the South. She was a field organizer for CORE. Along with several other celebrated people among them Harry Belefonte, Lena Horne, and James Baldwin they met with the then attorney general Robert Kennedy challenging his position on civil rights (221). In 1964, she wrote The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality. During this time period she was diagnosed with cancer and divorced her husband although they continued their literary collaboration (253). Her second play The Sign in Sidney Bustein's Window opened on Broadway the same year. It received modest success. Lorraine Hansberry died of cancer on January 12, 1964 at the age of 34. The Sign in Sidney Bustein's Window closed on Broadway the same day (http://artistsrep.org/artisits/a_lorraine_hansberry.html 3).

After her death, her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff adapted a collection of her work, correspondence, and interviews together in To Be Young, Gifted and Black. It opened Off-Broadway with an eight month run at the Cherry Lane. The same year To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words adapted by Robert Nemiroff was published (266). Even in death she continued her fight for equality and cultural differences. Through her thoughts and feelings she encouraged talented black youth with these words…Though it be a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic to be young, gifted and black (256). 

List of Awards, etc.

1959 Won New York Critics' Circle Award

1959 Named "most promising playwright" of the season by Variety's poll of New York drama critics

1961 Film of A Raisin in the Sun wins award at Cannes Film Festival

Works Cited

Metzger, Linda, ed. "Lorraine Hansberry." Black Writers. Detroit: Gale Researchers Inc. 1991. p. 146-147

Nemiroff, Robert. To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1970.

Artist Repertory Website http://artistsrep.org/artists/a_lorraine_hansberry.html.

Study Questions

1. What members of the Younger family are presented as having "dreams"? What are their dreams? Can they be classified under any common heading? How long have their dreams been "deferred"? How does the content of the play relate to its title?

2. Examine the Youngers - Mama, Walter, Beneatha, Ruth - one by one. What are their respective strengths and weaknesses? What problems does each face? What decisions does each make? What changes does each undergo? How do they differ from one another? What qualities do they have in common?

3. Paper topics:

(a) The role of women in Hansberry's plays

(b) Family relationships

(c) Language in Hansberry's plays

(d) Love between man and woman

(e) Relationships between women and men

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 8: Lorraine Hansberry." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap8/hansberry.html (provide page date or date of your login).
 

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