When Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway in 1959, it qualiﬁed as a number of ﬁrsts in both theatrical and cultural history in the U.S. It was the ﬁrst play written by a black woman to appear on Broadway. To those who knew Hansberry personally, it was also the ﬁrst by a black gay woman. Hansberry was the ﬁrst African American to win the New York Drama Critics Award and the production had Broadway’s ﬁrst African American director in ﬁfty years, Lloyd Richards. It was not the ﬁrst play about a black family on Broadway (Hansberry’s play was often compared to Louis Peterson’s 1953 Take a Giant Step, for example), but A Raisin in the Sun was the ﬁrst to receive such unanimous praise from critics and audiences. Other plays had taken the oppression suﬀered by African Americans in the U.S. as their central interest, but Hansberry’s play was somehow more direct, while being more heartfelt in its dramatization of the nation’s inequalities and how they aﬀected blacks on an individual and familial level. The play dramatizes the choice by a black family to be the ﬁrst of their race to move into a white suburb of Chicago and the intense opposition to their arrival. Unique in tone, Hansberry brilliantly mixes the light with the dark, and the comic with the tragic. She is similarly groundbreaking in how she structures her play. She avoids having a clear “main” character, preferring to allow the entire Younger family to serve as the play’s protagonist. The Younger’s desire for a decent home demonstrated to Broadway audiences that the values, dreams, and aspirations of African Americans were, in fact, similar to their own.
Hansberry’s life was connected to a number of other ﬁrsts. Her father won a Supreme Court case in 1940 that enabled the Hansberrys to be the ﬁrst black family in the Washington Park Subdivision of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. Clearly, Hansberry was drawing from personal experience when she wrote Raisin. The Hansberry family, like the Youngers, represented a new, hard won reality in the country. Restrictive covenants that contractually prohibited home owners from selling their houses to “undesirable” races were struck down as unconstitutional in 1948. In the pursuant decade before Raisin’s debut, demographics across the country were slowly changing.1 Writing from the heart of the Civil Rights movement, surrounded by trailblazers such as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, and Paul Robeson, Hansberry promoted a systematic overhaul of past practices. But, it’s worth noting that she does not dramatize these changes as triumphs. Rather, they are moments in her play of struggle and uncertainty, moments in which the empowerment of marginalized people requires stepping out on the thinnest of ledges: the treacherousness of being the ﬁrst. The Hansberrys may have won their court case, but they suﬀered threats and violence from their new neighbors as the price for it.
In this way, as much as we should rightly celebrate innovation and novelty, there is a danger in too zealously tracking “ﬁrsts.” They give the illusion of progress or breakthrough when they rarely signify such. Social and cultural accomplishments, like being the ﬁrst female African-American playwright on Broadway, are often more anomalies than they are a sign of systematic change. They can lead not to the alleviation of discrimination but its perpetuation. It’s the phenomenon of tokenism (or what social psychologists call “moral licensing”) that allows us to commit a virtuous act of inclusion and then immediately shut the door on such acts. Hansberry was not followed by a ﬂood of African American or female playwrights on the Great White Way; American theatres did not suddenly begin seeking out black stories or black audiences; and, discrimination in housing practices is by no means a thing of the past.2
On the more positive end, thinking in ﬁrsts also ignores the legacy from which any great work of art stems. Hansberry was undoubtable one of the great playwrights of the twentieth century (one whose life was tragically cut short at the age of thirty-ﬁve), but she had predecessors. I hope it is not too reductive to link her with other black women of genius, but please forgive a historian’s fancy. While Hurston was writing, surrounded by the vibrancy of the Harlem Renaissance, she must have been aware of compatriots of the earlier generation (some of whom were still alive). Anna Julia Cooper, one of the ﬁrst black women to receive a doctorate in the U.S., wrote articles on the qualities of African American literature. Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, playwright, poet, and novelist whose work on the African roots of black culture and black expression must have resounded with Hansberry. Angelina Weld Grimke was the ﬁrst female African-American playwright of note, whose heartbreaking play Rachel (1915) confronts some of the same issues as Raisin (and is long overdue for a proper remount).
Hansberry added to this legacy a close familiarity with authors such as Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, and O’Casey; all of whom she mentions as inﬂuences. There are others. The son in Raisin, Walter Lee, shares much with Willie Lowman of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949). Like Willie, Walter Lee is obsessed with grasping the brass ring and both characters fall victim to the promise of its shine. However, Walter Lee’s disillusionment is speciﬁc in that it calls attention to a community so often left out of the national narrative. His disappointment is a cry from the heart of the black community that they too were due their share of the American dream.
Producing Raisin sixty years after its debut, THEATREWORKS may not qualify for any “ﬁrsts,” but it does take part in an important legacy of reﬂection, one that uses Hansberry’s canonic work to assess the present state of things. We can see how far we’ve come and can consider how far we still have to go. We can look with pride upon our ﬁrsts as a nation and community, but recognize that ﬁrsts are often met with waves of backlash that undermine advancement. Malcolm X once said “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress.” What he called for was healing the wound of oppression, but he knew we must ﬁ rst recognize the wound’s existence. Hansberry’s play, in its pain, humor, grace, and bravery, oﬀers us the opportunity to examine that wound. She crafts as its salve and dressing the sacriﬁces of family, the lessons of the past, and the promise of the future. Let us tend that wound with our presence in the theatre and let our presence serve as a testament to the possibility of remedy.
Hansberry’s father’s case also involved a racial covenant, but he won on a technicality rather than a full-blown rejection of the racist practice.
- The passing of the Fair Housing Act did not come until 1968 as part of the Civil Right Act and we still see evidence of racial discrimination in housing across the country today