Here's the second installment in SheWired's new series about queer women, current and historical, who have done great things for LGBT people. This week we spotlight a figure from recent history, a late, great playwright and activist.
Who the F Is … Lorraine Hansberry?
Who she is: playwright, A Raisin in the Sun
What she accomplished: With A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry (1930-1965) became the first African-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway, and she was also the first black playwright and the youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award. The play, about a black family in Chicago encountering obstacles when they try to buy a home in a predominantly white neighborhood, premiered on Broadway March 11, 1959, and was a huge hit, running for 530 performances. It was made into a film starring Sidney Poitier in 1961, and it has become one of the staples of American theater; there’s a production playing now through November 17 at Chicago’s TimeLine Theatre. It also inspired a sequel, Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris, which won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play.
Hansberry was not only an accomplished playwright but an impassioned activist, for the rights of African-Americans, women, lesbians, gays, and other oppressed groups. She was married to a man, Robert Nemiroff, but according to some their union was largely platonic, and Hansberry had relationships with women. She also was a member of the Daughters of Bilitis, an early lesbian rights organization. She frequently wrote letters to the group’s journal, The Ladder, and to another gay magazine, ONE. She often emphasized the link between feminism and gay rights.
After A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry continued to write plays, but she never repeated that work’s critical and commercial success, and she died of pancreatic cancer at age 34. She left a rich legacy with Raisin, her activism, and the “informal autobiography” To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, which Nemiroff assembled from her interviews and writings. It was adapted into a play and also inspired a song of the same name, first recorded in 1970 by Nina Simone, who wrote it in collaboration with Weldon Irvine. Several others have recorded it as well, including Aretha Franklin and Elton John.
And if all goes well, there will soon be an opportunity to see Hansberry’s life portrayed on film. Her great-niece Taye Hansberry plans to play the title role in what’s billed as an unconventional biopic, currently in development. Numa Perrier is set to write and direct; Issa Rae has been cast as Nina Simone and Jaleel White as James Baldwin.
Choice quote: “I have suspected for a good time that the homosexual in America would ultimately pay a price for the intellectual impoverishment of women. … Men continue to misinterpret the second-rate status of women as implying a privileged status for themselves; heterosexuals think the same way about homosexuals; gentiles about Jews; whites about blacks; haves about have-nots.” —Hansberry in a 1961 letter to ONE magazine