Lorraine Hansberry in Chicago's Literary Hall of Fame

I knew the 1961 movie A Raisin in the Sun – starred Sidney Poitier – but I didn’t know until I read Poitier’s autobiography that there first had been a play and that he had starred in its 1959 Broadway production . . . that the play had been written by Lorraine Hansberry, a young black woman who had grown up in Chicago.

A decade ago, I was teaching a high school-level plays as literature course. I looked around my classroom and found I had three black students dotted among my otherwise all-white class. I pulled that play in for them and plays by August Wilson . . . to show that blacks wrote powerful stuff that succeeded on Broadway and in films.

I also taught Hansberry’s life, so she would be something more than just a name for my students.

Wow, what she achieved in the very short 34 years that she lived.

After Hansberry graduated from high school, she came up to my state – Wisconsin – for college . . . enrolled at UW/Madison. And she found the UW so uninspiring that she quit after two years and moved to New York City . . . to become a writer. She worked on the staff of Freedom, a black newspaper that actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson published. She also worked for black thinker and civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois who officed in the same building. It was during this time that Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun.

It was the first play written by a black woman to get a Broadway production, and it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. At age 29 – in 1959 – Hansberry was the youngest American playwright and only the fifth woman to take home this award.

She wrote essays, articles, the text for the SNCC book The Movement, and one more full play – The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. It, too, got a Broadway production.

One more Hansberry story. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window ran for 110 performances. And it closed the night she died.

Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s former husband and her literary executor, pulled together a number of Hansberry’s writing into the play To Be Young, Gifted and Black. It got an Off-Broadway production in 1968-69 and became the longest-running Off-Broadway play of that season. The next year, the play came out in book form as To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. A heck of a good read.

Monday: Meet the fifth of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s inductees – Studs Terkel

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