Lorraine Hansberry achieved an exceptional amount as a playwright and dramatist in the mere 34 years she was alive. As an American playwright, she wrote excellent work and was a trailblazer. She was the first black female playwright to have a play performed on Broadway with A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. With this work, at the age of 29 won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, making her the youngest playwright ever to do so and the first black dramatist to win the award. This play was also nominated for four Tony Awards including for Best Play. It has since been translated into 35 languages and been performed all over the world.
Hansberry’s most well-known play is A Raisin in the Sun, which details themes of civil rights and highlights the experiences of Americans living under racial segregation. Hansberry and her family fought against segregation and much of her work, especially after she moved to New York City, was concerned with the struggle for black liberation. Growing up, Hansberry’s father was a supporter of the NAACP and the Urban League in Chicago, and the family would be routinely visited by prominent black figures, including Olympian Jesse Owens and sociology professor W.E.B. Dubois.
During high school, Hansberry was interested in writing and drawn especially to the theatre. She later attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she became politically active with the Communist Party USA. She left before graduating to move to New York and become a writer. There, she attended The New School, considered a private university for progressive thinkers.
In 1951 she joined the staff of writers for Freedom newspaper, where she worked alongside other intellectuals to edit and create written works. This was where she wrote her earliest theatrical work in collaboration with playwright Alice Childress for a pageant for the “Negro History Festival”. Hansberry saw the struggle for black liberation to be intertwined with battles against colonialism and imperialism. Friends with Nina Simone, Hansberry inspired her song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and was the godmother of Simone’s daughter Lisa.
Following Hansberry’s success with A Raisin in the Sun, she wrote the screenplay for a film version, which was released in 1961 by Columbia Pictures.
Hansberry was married to Robert Nemiroff for 9 years, divorcing in 1962. She is now understood to have been a closeted lesbian, with researchers citing entries in personal notebooks prior to her marriage and discovering that she wrote anonymously for lesbian rights organisation, Daughters of Bilitis’ magazine, The Ladder.
At the age of 34, Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer. The night she died was also the night that her final play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, closed on Broadway. James Baldwin stated that he wouldn’t be surprised if what Hansberry witnessed in the fight for civil rights exacerbated the strain on her, contributing to her early death, “for the effort to which Lorraine was dedicated is more than enough to kill a man”. At her funeral, minister Eugene Callender read messages from Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr that said, “Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.”
Top Five Lorraine Hansberry Plays
- A Raisin in the Sun
- To Be Young, Gifted and Black
- Les Blancs
- The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window
- The Drinking Gourd
Lorraine Hansberry Quotes
“There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing.”
“Seems like God don’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams – but he did give us children to make them dreams seem worthwhile.”
“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!”
“I am a writer. I suppose I think that the highest gift that man has is art, and I am audacious enough to think of myself as an artist – that there is both joy and beauty and illumination and communion between people to be achieved through the dissection of personality.”
“The problem in the world is the oppression of man by man; it is this which threatens existence.”