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Lorraine Hansberry

One-hit wonders come and go.  But of them all, American playwright Lorraine Hansberry deserves the most respect.  Born in Chicago on May 19, 1930, she is best known for her play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959), about a black American family living on the South Side of Chicago.  The play was remarkable for its time in that it featured an all-black cast in an all-black setting during racially charged times, virtually guaranteeing that it would be ignored by a mostly white society.  Yet, the very power of the play allowed it to rise above all obstacles.

Hansberry grew up in a middle-class family in the Windy City at a time when neighborhoods were still racially segregated.  When she was eight years old, her father, a real-estate broker, had a white friend buy a house for him in an all-white neighborhood.  A few weeks after the Hansberrys moved in, they were attacked by an angry mob.  Lorraine narrowly escaped being hit by a brick thrown through her bedroom window.  Her father took the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, and his victory there in 1959 paved the way for racial desegregation in cities across the country.

It was that experience that gave Hansberry the idea for A Raisin in the Sun.  She told her husband that she wanted to write a social drama about blacks in America, but she also wanted it to stand on its own merits as a work of art.  She was tired of seeing blacks portrayed as cardboard characters with stereotypical dialect, so she wrote a play about the Younger family, who live in a cramped house on Chicago's bustling South Side.  When they receive a 10,000-dollar life insurance check, they have to decide if they should move into a larger house in an all-white suburb or remain where they are.  The title of the play sprang from a Langston Hughes poem called A Dream Deferred.

A Raisin in the Sun was Hansberry's first play.  She wrote it when she was twenty-eight years old, and she had no idea how to go about getting it produced.  One night, after reading the first part of the play to music publisher Philip Rose and a group of friends, Rose volunteered to produce the play, although he'd never produced a play in his life.  But he was friends with Sidney Poitier, whom he telephoned.  Poitier arranged for black director Lloyd Richards to tackle the project.

It took more than a year to raise the money necessary to produce Raisin.  Hansberry later said, "It was the conventional wisdom that nobody was going to pay...to see a bunch of negroes emoting."  They were unable to rent a theater in New York, so they took the show on the road.  Wherever it played, it drew huge audiences.

Finally, in March of 1959, the play opened on Broadway with a cast that included Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, and Louis Gossett Jr.  A preview audience gave it a lukewarm response.  But the opening-night audience loved it, and it went on to play for more than five hundred performances during the next two years.  It won the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best American play of 1959, despite the fact that Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, and William Faulkner each had a play on Broadway that year.

A Raisin in the Sun was the first Broadway play to be written by a black woman.  It was the first play that most audience members saw portraying the life of a normal black family on stage or in film.  For blacks, it opened the door for actors and directors to produce more plays on Broadway.  Over the next six years, five Broadway productions by black playwrights using mostly black casts premiered.  The play inspired a new generation of black playwrights that included August Wilson and Ntozake Shange, and it helped to spawn several black theater troupes in the 1960s and '70s.

In 1961, the play was made into a movie, with most of the original cast.  In 1973, it was made into a Tony award-winning musical; and, in 1989, it was produced for television.  Today, it's used in many schools to teach playwriting techniques, and it's performed regularly in regional theaters. 

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