A Raisin in the Sun | Study Guide

Lorraine Hansberry

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A Raisin in the Sun | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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When A Raisin in the Sun premiered in 1959, it made several historical breakthroughs. Perhaps most notably, it introduced audiences to Lorraine Hansberry, the first African American playwright to have a show premiere on Broadway. It was also the first Broadway performance with an African American director and a mostly African American cast.

Though some critics felt the play promoted assimilation or the adoption of white culture by African Americans, other critics focused on its portrayal of the American dream and the attitudes of American society toward African Americans.

The play focuses on the challenges an African American family faces when it purchases a house in an all-white Chicago neighborhood. Building on Hansberry's experience of being harassed in a white neighborhood as a child, the play shows the racism still dividing housing in the 1950s.

1. A Raisin in the Sun was the first Broadway play by an African American woman.

A Raisin in the Sun premiered on Broadway in 1959. It was the first play written by an African American woman to make it to Broadway, and it ran for 530 performances. Hansberry was also the first and youngest African American playwright to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.

2. Producers nearly didn't raise enough funds to produce the play.

It took a year for producers to raise enough money to bring A Raisin in the Sun to the stage. They had to go to 150 investors to get funds, and they couldn't find a Broadway stage for the play until it opened to successful reviews out of town.

3. White critics praised A Raisin in the Sun for not being a "Negro play."

When A Raisin in the Sun opened, critics compared it to Death of a Salesman, stating that it was a serious family drama with universal themes rather than a particularly "Negro play." In response, Hansberry stated, "Not only is this a play about a Negro family, specifically and definitely culturally ... it is definitely a Negro play before it is anything else."

4. The play's title comes from a powerful Langston Hughes poem.

"What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?" asks the black poet Langston Hughes in his poem "Harlem." Referencing this poem in the title of A Raisin in the Sun connected the play's audience to Hughes, a significant contributor to the Harlem Renaissance and a voice against racism.

5. Hansberry was the granddaughter of a freed slave.

Born in 1930 in Chicago, Lorraine Hansberry was the granddaughter of a freed slave. This was a piece of family history that greatly influenced her work and home life. Her father was a civil rights activist, and their home was a center for African American intellectuals and politicians to gather.

6. Hansberry and her family were attacked by their white neighbors.

In 1938 the Hansberry family moved to a white neighborhood in Chicago. Restrictive laws prohibited African Americans from living there, and neighbors attacked the family so violently that Lorraine Hansberry was nearly killed by a piece of concrete. Her father, Carl, took the case to court, and Hansberry v. Lee went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled the laws were unconstitutional.

7. Hansberry wrote under a pseudonym after her lesbianism was exposed by the media.

Hansberry divorced her husband, Robert Nemiroff, in 1964, but apparently before that she struggled privately with her closeted lesbianism. She wrote two letters to The Ladder, a lesbian publication, in which she described herself as a "heterosexually married lesbian," signing one letter "L.H.N." and the other "L.N."

8. Hansberry's parents crossed out the word "Negro" on her birth certificate.

When Lorraine Hansberry was born, her father, a civil rights activist, crossed out the word "Negro" on her birth certificate. In its place he wrote "Black."

9. Hansberry wrote two screenplays for the play that were rejected for being too controversial.

When Columbia Pictures decided to make a movie of the play, the company asked Hansberry to write the screenplay. Her first two versions, written 1959–60, placed great emphasis on the racial aspects of the story, and the film company officials believed these aspects were too controversial. The third screenplay followed the play much more closely and is the version that appeared onscreen. Actor Sidney Poitier, who had played the role of Walter Lee Younger onstage, reprised the role on film.

10. Hansberry died the same night her second play closed on Broadway.

Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer at age 34. Her second Broadway play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, opened in October 1964, and it closed on the night she died. The play's characters are all white, except for one who passes as white, and critics, who expected a play similar to A Raisin in the Sun, gave the new work mixed reviews.

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