Friday, March 11, 2011

"A Raisin in the Sun" hits Broadway

"All art is ultimately social: that which agitates and that which prepares the mind for slumber..."
Lorraine Hansberry
On March 11 in Black History...

In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry's 'A Raisin in the Sun' premiered on Broadway.  The play ran for 530 performances, becoming the longest running Broadway play written by an African-American. A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, as well as the first play with a black director (Lloyd Richards) on Broadway. With a cast in which all but one are African-Americans, A Raisin in the Sun was considered to be a risky investment, and it took over a year for producer Philip Rose to raise enough money to launch the play. After touring to positive reviews, it premiered on Broadway on March 11, 1959.

Lloyd Richards
In 1960 A Raisin In The Sun was nominated for four Tony Awards:
  • Best Play - Written by Lorraine Hansberry; produced by Philip Rose, David J. Cogan
  • Best Actor in Play - Sidney Poitier
  • Best Actress in a Play - Claudia McNeil
  • Best Direction of a Play - Lloyd Richards

The working title of A Raisin in the Sun was originally ' The Crystal Stair' after a line in a poem by Langston Hughes. The new title was from another Langston Hughes poem, which asked: "What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, / Or does it explode?"   All experiences in this play echo a lawsuit (Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940)), to which the Hansberry family was a party when they fought to have their day in court because a previous class action about racially motivated restrictive covenants (Burke v. Kleiman, 277 Ill. App. 519 (1934) was similar to the case at hand.  Lorraine reflects upon the litigation in her book To Be Young, Gifted, and Black:

"25 years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation's ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house… My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court."

Hansberry noted that "A Raisin in the Sun" introduced details of black life to the overwhelmingly white Broadway audiences, while director Richards observed that it was the first play to which large numbers of blacks were drawn. The New York Times stated that A Raisin in the Sun "changed American theater forever."  

In 1961, a film version of A Raisin in the Sun was released featuring its original Broadway cast of Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, Louis Gossett, Jr. and John Fiedler. Hansberry wrote the screenplay, and the film was directed by Daniel Petrie. In 1973, the play was turned into a musical, Raisin. It was written by Hansberry's former husband, Robert Nemiroff. It won the 1974 Tony Award for Best musical. In 1989 it was adapted into a made for TV movie starring Danny Glover and Esther Rolle. This production received three Emmy Award nominations.

There has been one Broadway revival in 2004 at the Royale Theatre.  Another made for television film, premiered on February 25, 2008 on ABC. The cast is mostly made up of actors from the 2004 revival, including Sean "Diddy" Combs, Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan, Sean Patrick Thomas, and John Stamos .This version of the play was directed by Kenny Leon.

"A woman who is willing to be herself and pursue her own potential runs not so much the risk...of loneliness as the challenge of exposure to more interesting men -- and people in general" 
Lorraine Hansberry

After attending a school performance of a play by the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey, Juno and the Paycock (1924), she decided to become a writer. Lorraine Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison, but found college to be uninspiring and left in 1950 to pursue her career as a writer in New York City, where she attended The New School. She worked on the staff of the Black newspaper Freedom under the auspices of Paul Robeson, and also worked with W. E. B. DuBois, whose office was in the same building. A Raisin in the Sun was written at this time, and was a huge success. It was the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. At 29 years, she became the youngest American playwright and only the 5th woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. While many of her other writings were published in her lifetime - essays, articles, and the text for the SNCC book The Movement, the only other play given a contemporary production was The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window ran for 110 performances on Broadway and closed the night she died. Her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff became the executor for several unfinished manuscripts. He added minor changes to complete the play Les Blancs, which Julius Lester termed her best work, and he adapted many of her writings into the play, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which was the longest-running Off Broadway play of the 1968-1969 season. It appeared in book form the following year under the title, To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. She left behind an unfinished novel and several other plays, including The Drinking Gourd and What Use Are Flowers, with a range of content, from slavery to a post apocalyptic future.
"The melody was one that I had known for a very long time."

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