March 11, 2002
-- On March 11, 1959, at the Broadway opening of the play A Raisin in the Sun
, author Lorraine Hansberry and producer Philip Rose took their seats in the fourth row of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre without the anticipation of success.
The production had already negotiated a long and troubled road just to find its way to the opening, and had met with a lukewarm reception at a preview showing the night before. As they held hands and waited for the curtain to open, neither could have foreseen the play's imminent triumph, or the role it would play in Black American culture in the years that followed.
For Morning Edition
, NPR's Cheryl Corley
reports that the play has its roots in Hansberry's experiences as the daughter of wealthy Chicago parents. Her report is part of NPR's Present at the Creation
series about the origins of American icons.
Hansberry's father made his money as a real-estate broker in a segregated Chicago where restrictive covenants meant that black tenants or homeowners were barred from white areas. Her father challenged this limitation by purchasing a house in just such a neighborhood and moving his family in. A violent furor erupted in the surrounding community, but the family fought back and the resulting court battle led to the eventual repeal of restrictive covenants.
A Raisin in the Sun
, named after a line from a Langston Hughes poem, relates the story of the Youngers, a Southside Chicago family trying to survive in cramped quarters. When Mama gets a $10,000 check from her husband's life insurance, they consider moving to a larger house in a white suburb.
Hansberry told her husband she wanted to write a social drama about blacks that was good art. Instead of stereotyped characters that would bear no resemblance to actual people, she invented a situation that was sometimes painfully realistic. The plot revolves around what her characters do given the opportunity to escape their cramped surroundings.
Beside Hansberry stood a somewhat inexperienced but memorably talented cast and crew (including Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee and director Lloyd Richards). Still, bringing the play to the stage was a struggle. Because the cast was black, funding the play was considered risky, and it took more than a year for first-time producer Rose to gather the money required for production.
After touring to positive notices, the play finally landed on Broadway. After an underwhelming preview show, some were convinced that Raisin
was doomed. But the night of the premiere, the audience erupted in appreciation, and critics responded just as enthusiastically. The New York Drama Critics Circle named it the best American play of 1959.
Hansberry may not have expected quite so much adulation, but she was aware of the play's significance, especially to Broadway's overwhelmingly white audiences. "The intimacy of knowledge which the Negro may culturally have of white Americans," she once said, "does not exist in the reverse."
Not only did the play give standard Broadway patrons a glimpse into lives that had previously been hidden by tenement walls, it also brought a whole new audience to the theater. Richards says that Raisin
was the first play that black audiences were drawn to.
"Black people had not been attending the theater that much previously," he tells Corley, "and here was a play that was about them."
The play that "changed American theater forever," according to the New York Times
, ran for nearly two years on Broadway and has seen multiple other incarnations. It was made into a 1961 film starring most of the original Broadway cast, adapted into a Tony award winning musical in 1973 and produced for television in 1989. Hansberry died of cancer in 1965, at the age of 34.
Watch an excerpt of an interview
with Lorraine Hansberry discussing A Raisin in the Sun
Watch the movie trailer
for A Raisin in the Sun
Read a biography of Lorraine Hansberry
Read a Washington Post review
of Philip Rose's book, You Can't Do That on Broadway!