One Book, One Chicago Spring 2003
Background and Criticism
A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Barrymore Theatre in New York on March 11, 1959, to great popular and critical success. It was the first play written by an African American to be produced on Broadway and the first to be directed by an African American in over half a century. It ran for 530 performances and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play of the year, edging out plays by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. Hansberry was the youngest American, fifth woman and first black to win the award. A Raisin in the Sun marked the turning point for black artists in professional theater.
It took about a year for producers Philip Rose and David Cogan to raise enough money from 150 investors to finance the play. They had trouble finding a Broadway theater to stage the play until the success of the out-of-town tryouts in New Haven, Conn., Philadelphia and Chicago. Directed by Lloyd Richards, the original cast included Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Lou Gossett, Glynn Turman and Diana Sands. Ossie Davis later replaced Poitier.
The white press applauded the play for not being only a “Negro play” but one that was a universal drama. This implied that the story would be the same if the black characters were replaced with white ones. In part, Hansberry agreed, saying, “I don’t think there is anything more universal in the world than man’s oppression to man.” But she argued that her characters were distinctly Negro and even more specifically from Chicago’s South Side. She insisted that “one of the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that, in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific.”
Many people have called Hansberry a visionary and her writing prophetic. She addressed issues unfamiliar at the time but soon to be at the forefront of discussion: concepts of black beauty, generational conflict, class differences, feminism and black Americans’ relationship to their African past.
One of her most compelling essays, “The Negro Writer and His Roots,” was delivered to a black writers conference in 1959. In it, she urged black artists to recognize the vital connection between politics and aesthetics. She declared that “all art is ultimately social” and that black writers need to be involved in “the intellectual affairs of all men, everywhere.”
Hansberry often cited the influence of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey and his play Juno and the Paycock. She referred to him as “the playwright of the 20th century accepting and using the most obvious instruments of Shakespeare, which is the human personality and its totality….” She believed his work showed “the genuine heroism which must naturally emerge when you tell the truth about people.”
Despite the championing of the play by James Baldwin and other prominent writers, criticism of A Raisin in the Sun ranged from those who found it too radical to those who called it conservative. Nelson Algren disparaged it as “a good drama about real estate.” Poet and playwright Amiri Baraka originally described the play’s subject as “middle class—buying a house and moving into white folks neighborhoods.” But he later said that its themes “are actually reflective of the essence of black people’s striving and the will to defeat segregation, discrimination and national oppression.”
In the introduction to Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black, James Baldwin wrote of the play, “Never before, in the entire history of American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on stage.”
- Hooks, Bell. Remembered Rapture: The Writer At Work. Henry Holt and Company, 1999.
- Koppel, Lawrence, ed. Readings on A Raisin in the Sun. Greenhaven Press, 2001.
- McKissack, Patricia C. and Fredrick L. Young, Black and Determined: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry. Holiday House, 1998.
- Terkel, Studs. “An Interview with Lorraine Hansberry.” WFMT Chicago Fine Arts Guide, April 1961.