The Black Playwright Who Transformed Theater
Patricia Marx: Ms. Hansberry, I'd like to begin by discussing some of the problems you raised in A Raisin in the Sun and I wonder so that everyone will know what we're talking about if you'd be kind enough to describe the story briefly.
Lorraine Hansberry: Well, what it involves is an examination of a family, the Southside of Chicago, where I was born, who belong to the lower classes, a family of domestic workers, who I hope are fairly typical of people who think that there is something more to do with your life than accept it as it is. The young son becomes the--
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright, and this is a recording from 1961 of Lorraine Hansberry, talking about her play, A Raisin in the Sun.
Lorraine Hansberry: In terms of a statement, I think what the play tries to say is that we really don't have very much in the world at all, if we allow any aspect of money values, to transcend the requirements that are necessary for human dignity.
Kai Wright: A Raisin in the Sun was the first show ever staged on Broadway written by a Black woman. Today, it is still the most often produced show by a Black playwright and it has just come back to the stage. A new production has just opened at the Public Theater here in New York City and that's notable because for those who aren't familiar, the public is where dozens of Titanic shows ranging from A Chorus Line to Hamilton were first produced.
Hansberry was a towering presence in Black artistic and intellectual life in the mid-20th century, but her life and her work has until quite recently largely gone unexamined. Her close friend, James Baldwin, he is a household name, but why isn't she and what can we learn from her even now? Princeton University professor and author, Imani Perry has done as much as anyone to put those questions on the table. Her 2018 book, Looking for Lorraine was one of the first meaningful studies of Hansberry's life. Imani was last on our show talking about Baldwin, so we got back in touch to ask her about Hansberry. Thank you so much for coming back on the show.
Imani Perry: Thank you for having me.
Kai Wright: Let's say I never heard of Lorraine Hansberry, which honestly, many people really have not. How would you introduce her to me?
Imani Perry: I would introduce her as an intellectual, a groundbreaking Black woman playwright, who thought deeply about the politics of class, race and gender, and was passionate about capturing the lives of Black people and rendering them honestly. She was extraordinary.
Kai Wright: Rendering them honestly, say more about that. I feel like that's an important part of this conversation.
Imani Perry: Yes, I mean, Hansberry was an unapologetic leftist and she had a kind of a political sensibility about her work, but she didn't want the plays that she wrote to feel didactic, she wanted to be really honest about how Black people navigated poverty and exclusion and Raisin in the Sun captures that. This is very much a south side, mid-20th century Chicago, Black family, and language and sensibilities, and all of those things so the message comes through in how they each are trying to grapple with the conditions of their lives and also do something meaningful.
Kai Wright: The show is the story of the younger family. The father has died and the mother wants to use his life insurance policy to buy a new home outside of the ghetto but the white homeowners association in the neighborhood they want to move to finds out about them and offers the family money to stay away, and this causes the show's central tension as the family debates what to do as each of them kind of sees this moment as an opportunity to pursue their version of freedom.
Is it fair? I think of it as sort of a meditation on whether the "American Dream" is ever even a viable idea for Black people, in the sense that each family member has this dream and each dream is kind of their version, their strategy of how to hack the system that's actually designed to destroy them and none of the dreams actually work out in the end. It's not a happy story, really.
Imani Perry: I think it's complicated because on one level, they buy the house and they're moving into a neighborhood that doesn't want them. It's not a happy ending in the sense that everything isn't tied up with a bow. They're not going to go and be a middle-class family that is embraced by a suburban community, but I think there's a sense in which I mean Hansberry talked about it as a play that had an affirmative message meaning, they refused to be cowed by the white folks in the neighborhood who were very clear. We don't want you here, right?
There's a resistance in it. There's a kind of optimism with respect to that, although almost certainly they're going to face hostility and even brutality because residential desegregation was very violent in the Midwest is the best way to describe it.
Kai Wright: It was the first play on Broadway written by a Black woman. Many have pointed out that that factoid though understates the importance of this show in terms of theater history. Can you talk about that, like the way this production changed theater in general?
Imani Perry: Hansberry was kind of explicit about wanting to do this. This was not the happy-go-lucky or conventional. She used to call the sort of stories with glandular negros singing songs that would pull at the heartstrings and sentimentalist ways that when you saw Black people on Broadway either singing or dancing, it was conventional. This was a drama that as James Baldwin, a dear friend of Hansberry talked about one of the first times she saw Black people on Broadway to see a play and it was remarkable that people would pay for a ticket on Broadway when folks were poor. They could just go to the movies instead.
It opened space, both for serious treatments of Black life and also for Black people to have a space as patrons on Broadway. She really opened the door. There were people sort of diminishes significance and tried to imply that she had somehow had some special treatment because she was a Black woman and she said that, if that was the case, that would be the first time in history that anybody had given anybody anything just for being Black.
Kai Wright: The last time too.
Imani Perry: Right. That was the last time, but it's a brilliant work, and it's a timeless work.
Kai Wright: One of the premises of Looking for Lorraine, of your book is we know still so little about Lorraine Hansberry's life. She died very young at 34 of pancreatic cancer. She did so much in that young time but there's been so little scholarship of her. Why is that? If this was such an important person, why do we know so little about her and her impact on American culture?
Imani Perry: Part of it is that her archive was not fully accessible for many years and part, I think, because there was an effort by her executor, Robert Nemiroff, who had been her husband and who should divorced but who continues to be a close friend to protect her because Hansberry identified as a lesbian.
Kai Wright: Imani explains that Hansberry's ex-husband wanted to shield her legacy from the homophobia of the time because our archives are full of writing about her sexuality and her politics around that. That's one thing. There's also the fact that she died so young that some researchers assumed there just wasn't much to say about her and then there was this particular mix of gender and political ideology that got in the way.
I want to talk a little bit about the piece that's the part of it was gender because in her lifetime, there were some important Black male thinkers who rejected her. What was their critique of her and how do you think that impacted the legacy for so long in terms of how she was thought about?
Imani Perry: One of the most vociferous critiques of Hansberry came from LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amear Baraka and he read A Raisin in the Sun as just a play about white middle-class aspirations and blackface and really diminished her and then argued that she wrote a play like that because she was bourgeois, but later in life realized he was wrong and basically took it back but there was a lot of that.
The sort of misreading of her politically, which is really quite unfortunate because she was deeply immersed in Black political spaces. She fundraised for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she was involved with them. She was mentored by Du Bois and Paul Robeson. She was very close to Nina Simone and James Baldwin, and that diminishment, which may have partially been professional jealousy because she was young and so accomplished.
Kai Wright: Yes, talk about her relationship with James Baldwin. How did they meet?
Imani Perry: They actually meet when the Actor's Studio is putting on a trial run of a play that he's written and she's sitting in the back of the theater and their performance has happened and there's all these powerful people in the theater world who are just eviscerating the play and saying it's terrible. Hansberry is this little, she's this tiny delicate person and she stands up and she just gives it to all of these white critics who are attacking him. He says, "She was my savior." That was all.
He would go to her and ask, "Will you read this for me?" They were good, they argued, they laughed, they drank together. He really turned to her as someone he could be vulnerable with, especially about his work which is fairly remarkable. They became friends before she was really famous, and he was understood as one of the best essays in the country already. Yet, he trusted her as an interlocutor and as someone to tell him honestly about his work.
Kai Wright: I know from your work that she pushed him politically on-
Imani Perry: Oh, absolutely.
Kai Wright: -thinking about Black people on capitalism, which is just so opposite of what people I think would think. James Baldwin is now this--
Imani Perry: He's an icon.
Kai Wright: He's an icon of Black left thought.
Imani Perry: Yes.
Kai Wright: She had to push him left.
Imani Perry: Absolutely. She really wanted to talk about the politics of class and also international politics, and so she pushed him in that respect as well. Yes.
Kai Wright: One of the things I think a lot of people know about Lorraine Hansberry and her politics is this famous meeting that we know about because James Baldwin tells us about it with Robert Kennedy in advance of the Civil Rights Act.
Imani Perry: Sure. She was invited with a group of other Black artists and intellectuals to the Kennedy apartment on Central Park West and RFK is there. As I said, it's Lena Horne, it's Baldwin and Lorraine and various other folks who are there. The Kennedys are-- What they want to have happen is they want these Black leading figures to actually get Black people in Birmingham to stop creating so much confusion for them politically because they're worried that the protests that are happening in Birmingham are going to have a negative impact on JFK's candidacy.
The meeting is intended as a effort to manage Black resistance. The interaction is initially sort of awkward. Jerome Smith, who was in New York, because he had been beaten by police officers in Mississippi and had been seriously injured, he was there for surgery. He was a civil rights activist, said something explicitly about their failure to protect civil rights organizers. RFK was dismissive of him and this incensed Hansberry. She went in on RFK and basically said not only are we not going to do anything to quell Black dissent, those Black people in the streets speak for us, and what we want from you is a moral commitment to the cause of racial justice.
Baldwin describes her as this huge presence taking up the room. He's like, I know she was small, but it seemed like she filled the whole room and taking on the moral leadership in that moment. They leave the meeting and newspapers, the New York Times, and the like report the meeting as having been a failure but after that moment is actually the first time that JFK starts talking about a moral commitment to civil rights, so it has an impact.
Kai Wright: Your work on her youth, I've heard you say is as much about the story of Chicago, is about her, and I heard you say the only Black Chicago could have generated Lorraine Hansberry or something to that effect. Tell me about that, why Chicago?
Imani Perry: Chicago is this extraordinary place. It's a primary migration destination. It's a place that I call a sight of the dream deferred in taking the language from Lang Hughes poem, Harlem, which is the basis for the title Raisin in the Sun. All these migrants come up from the deep South with all of these hopes and dreams, and they confront a depth of inequality and segregation and racial exclusion that is extraordinary and yet, they continue to build and grow and imagine.
She comes of age in a generation that has been cradled by-- not just Black aspiration, but Black resistance in so many ways. That, I think provides the foundation for her, not just her intellectual imagination, but her political imagination.
Kai Wright: We brought you here to talk to us about your work on Lorraine Hansberry, but before I let you go, I can't not bring up, congratulations for your most recent book.
Imani Perry: Thank you.
Kai Wright: You have been long-listed for a national book award. I'm certain you're going to win. The book is called South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. I just want to briefly ask you about that, why is the South on your heart right now, why this journey through the South?
Imani Perry: It does actually connect to Hansberry because one of the things that she said at the end of her life as she was dying, she said, if she were well, she would go down south to see what revolutionary she could be. I think as much as the South is described as this backwards, other less-developed place, it actually is the heart of this nation. It is how the wealth of the nation was built. It is where the nation began and it actually has always set the pace of what we do and sometimes in ways that are quite tragic, but also it's a place where you have seen this sort of remarkable resilience and continued struggle for a more humane way of doing things.
The South is, I was born in Birmingham, Alabama. It is my home. It's where the majority of my family is. I don't come from a great migration family. Me and my mom migrated, but the rest of my family largely didn't. The majority of African Americans have always, and continue to live in the South. I feel like it's been given short shrift, and I think we want to understand this country. We need to try to understand that place and from the position of Black people who in many ways have been the backbone of the South, a neglected, abused backbone, but a backbone of it through US history.
Kai Wright: Well, Professor Imani Perry, thank you so much for coming back on our show and sharing your wisdom and your research, and your writing.
Imani Perry: Thanks so much. It's great talking to you.
Kai Wright: This is Notes From America. We're a production of WNYC Studios. You can follow the show wherever you get your podcasts, and also find us on both Instagram and Twitter @noteswithKai. That's notes with K-A-I. Special thanks to WNYC's archivist, Andy Lanset for the 1961 interview with Lorraine Hansberry that we started with. Our live engineers this week are Matthew Mirando and Milton Ruiz.
Our team also includes Karen Frillmann, Vanessa Handy, Regina de Heer, Rahima Nasa, Kousha Navidar, and Jared Paul. I'm Kai Wright. If you heard anything you want to comment on or ask about tonight, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bonus points if you send it as a voice note. Otherwise, I will talk to you here next week. Thanks for spending time with us.
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