For Black History Month, we are kicking off a series honoring the history of Black artists and theater-makers. We recognize that Black History does not end when February does, and we will use this series not as a limited run, but as a starting point to share a bit of the knowledge we are learning and teaching in our classrooms.
We begin by highlighting Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.
Waterwell’s freshman class is finishing their unit on this play this month. We’ve been approaching the play with a focus on structures, both literal and figurative: analyzing its dramatic construction, discussing the systemic racism that shaped the play’s historical context, and activating our set design skills to create our own interpretations of the world of the play.
Below is one of those designs, by freshman student Mia Soleil Jacquez.
A Raisin in the Sun has been an American classic since its premiere in 1959, when it was the first play by a Black woman (a 29 year-old, no less) to be performed on Broadway. Its commercial success (and popularity with mainstream white audiences of the time) led some people to overlook or underestimate its radical impact.
For example, an FBI agent, who attended a performance on Feb 4, 1959 in order to evaluate the play for potential “communist propaganda,” noted the enthusiastic response from both Black and white audience members. He seemed to feel that the play didn’t represent a real political threat because white audiences missed (or ignored) the more disruptive content. As the agent put it in his report, “Comments overheard from whites appeared to indicate that they appreciated the drama and the quality of the acting…few appeared to dwell on the propaganda messages.” (Lorraine Hansberry, like a number of other Black artists, would remain under FBI surveillance for the rest of her life.)
But the play and its author were, in fact, radical in their goals and outlook. James Baldwin recognized its power, both as a work of art and as a watershed moment in American theatrical history: “I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theater…And the reason was that 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. Black people had ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them.”
A Raisin in the Sun was the first of only two plays Lorraine Hansberry wrote that were performed in her lifetime. The second, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, ended its run on the day she died of cancer, at the young age of 34. (Other plays and writings were released posthumously, some edited by her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff.) In addition to her work as a writer, Hansberry was a committed activist. Her politics were deeply influenced by witnessing her parents’ futile struggle to battle housing segregation in the courts: they won the legal battle (in the case Hansberry v. Lee), but became disillusioned when it did not result in any actual changes outside the courtroom. Throughout her life, she was determined to use her voice as an artist to advocate for civil rights and radical social change.
In 1964, less than a year before her death, she spoke at a forum in NYC, sponsored by The Association of Artists for Freedom, that addressed the growing tensions between Black activists and some white liberals, who were uncomfortable with some of the more radical tactics used in the struggle for civil rights. Hansberry delivered a stirring speech entitled “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash:”
“Can’t you understand that this is the perspective from which we are now speaking? It isn’t as if we got up today and said, you know, ‘what can we do to irritate America?’ …since 1619, Negroes have tried every method of communication, of transformation of their situation, from petition to the vote, everything. We’ve tried it all. There isn’t anything that hasn’t been exhausted. Isn’t it rather remarkable that we can talk about a people who were publishing newspapers while they were still in slavery in 1827…And now the charge of impatience is simply unbearable. I would like to submit that the problem is that, yes, there is a problem about white liberals…The problem is we have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical…The basic organization of American society is the thing that has Negroes in the situation that they are in and never let us lose sight of it.”
Background and Full Text of Hansberry’s Speech “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash:” http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/blackspeech/lhansberry.html
Audio recording of the above speech: https://youtu.be/wqxjc7PULJ8
Imani Perry, Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry
William J. Maxwell, F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostwriters Framed African American Literature
To read the declassified FBI files on Black writers that Maxwell collected during his research: http://omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/fbeyes