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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

UW-Madison alumna Lorraine Hansberry debuted her play "A Raisin in the Sun," making her the first African-American female playwright on Broadway. 

‘A Raisin in the Sun’ celebrates 60th Anniversary: A look at Broadway’s first African-American woman playwright

Today will mark the 60th anniversary of the groundbreaking play, "A Raisin in the Sun." It debuted on March 11, 1959, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, marking the first Broadway play ever written by an African-American woman, Lorraine Hansberry. 

The inspiration for this play drew from a very personal space to properly articulate the lives of Black Americans facing racial segregation in Chicago. This stemmed from her experience as part of a black family moving into an all-white neighborhood. 

Hansberry grew up in a culture of activism from her father, Carl Hansberry. He was a staunch supporter of the Urban League and NAACP, even fighting against restrictive covenants that brought on segregated housing areas that culminated in a Supreme Court ruling that it was contestable. 

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry attended UW-Madison with the desire to major in art. While on campus, she became politically active on all causes and always spoke out for what was right. Classmate Bob Teague recalled her a “the only girl I knew who could whip together a fresh picket sign with her own hands, at a moment’s notice, for any cause or occasion.”

In 1950, Hansberry chose to leave Madison behind for New York City after two years to work for the progressive black journal, Freedom Newspaper. Despite her marriage to Robert Nemiroff, a political activist, she was a closeted lesbian who supported gay rights, feminism and protested homophobia, which led to her becoming a member of the Daughters of Bilitis. DOB is the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the U.S. to provide support to women who were afraid to come out. Fearing backlash, she wrote letters to their lesbian newspaper under her initials “LHN.”

The title of her first play comes from a Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem.” The line is: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” It details the story of a black lower-class family’s experience in a Chicago subdivision as they struggle to “better” themselves with an insurance payout following their father’s death. 

"Raisin" was well-received — The New York Drama Critics’ Circle named it the best play of 1959. Hansberry was 29 years old at the time, marking her as the youngest playwright and the fifth woman to receive this award. It reached broader audiences in the following years: in 1961 a film version, 1973 a musical, produced twice for TV and had a revival on Broadway in 2004. 

The attention resulted in critical acclaim where many notable writers praised it. James Baldwin said, “never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on the stage.”

Hansberry passed away 1965 at the age of 34 from pancreatic cancer. The Wisconsin Alumni Association Alumni Park highlights her contribution as a UW-Madison alumni. Her legacy carries on and shows the significance of radical work.

“I’ve always assumed I had something to tell people,” Hansberry said.

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Lauren Souza is an arts editor for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of her work, click here.

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