(Parul Sehgal’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/14; via Pam Green. Photo: The playwright Lorraine Hansberry in 1959. Credit…David Attie/Getty Images.)
The curtain rises on a dim, drab room. An alarm sounds, and a woman wakes. She tries to rouse her sleeping child and husband, calling out: “Get up!”
It is the opening scene — and the injunction — of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun,” the story of a Black family living on the South Side of Chicago. “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,” her friend James Baldwin would later recall. It was the first play by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway. When “Raisin” won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play, Hansberry — at 29 — became the youngest American and the first Black recipient.
How often the word “first” appears in the life of Hansberry; how often it will appear in this review. See also “spokeswoman” or “only.” Strange words of praise; meretricious even, in how they can mask the isolation they impose. Hansberry seemed to anticipate it all. At the triumphant premiere of “Raisin,” at the standing ovation and the calls for playwright to take the stage, she initially refused to leave her seat. “The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all,” she later wrote, “is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.”
Hansberry died in 1965, at 34, of cancer. The fact still feels intolerable, almost unassimilable — her death not merely tragedy but a kind of theft. “Look at the work that awaits you!” she said in a speech to young writers, calling them “young, gifted and Black” — inspiring the Nina Simone song of the same name. Look at the work that awaited her. She goaded herself on, even in the hospital: “Comfort has come to be its own corruption.”