“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.”
James Baldwin, writing about A Raisin in the Sun in his introduction to Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black, 1969
On March 11, 1959 Lorraine Hansberry made history on Broadway with the opening of her play, A Raisin in the Sun. A story about a Black working-class family living in Chicago, the play was the first on Broadway to be written and produced by an African American woman. It was also the first directed by an African American, Lloyd Richards, and the first commercially produced drama about Black life featured on Broadway. The 530-performance run of A Raisin in the Sun not only marked a milestone in the history of American theater, it became a pivotal moment in American cultural history that opened doors for Black artists, actors, writers, and filmmakers, including Gordon Parks.
The title of the play was borrowed from Langston Hughes’s poem, “Harlem,”: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” The play likewise tells a story of a “dream deferred:” It follows Walter Younger and his mother, Lena, who both yearn to move their family out of Chicago's South Side neighborhood in search of better lives. When Lena's late husband's insurance check arrives, Lena hopes to use it to buy a house in a white neighborhood. Walter, on the other hand, would like to invest the money in a liquor business.
The play wasn’t initially welcomed on Broadway, but once it proved successful at venues in New Haven, Philadelphia, and Chicago, it found a home at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre at 243 West 47th Street in New York. The production moved to the Belasco Theatre in October 1959 before eventually closing on June 25, 1960. The original cast, captured by Gordon Parks for Life shortly after the play premiered, included the legendary Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Lou Gossett, Glynn Turman and Diana Sands.
The 1959 production won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play of the year, making Hansberry the youngest American and first African American playwright to win the award. A Raisin in the Sun was later adapted as a film in 1961, featuring most of the original cast, including Sidney Poitier. Hansberry herself wrote the screenplay, and Daniel Petrie directed. Poitier would go on to become the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Male Actor, for his role as Homer Smith in the 1963 movie, Lilies of the Field.
Hansberry drew on her own experiences growing up in Chicago’s South Side to write the play: In 1937, her father, Carl Hansberry, a Black real estate developer, purchased a three-story home located at 6140 S. Rhodes Ave in Chicago—a building that was subject to a racially discriminatory housing covenant. As the City of Chicago’s landmark office notes, “Despite threats, Carl Hansberry moved his family into the building and waged a three-year-long battle culminating in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that was an important victory in the effort to outlaw racially-restrictive housing covenants.”
Gordon Parks’s film career owes a debt to Hansberry’s accomplishments with A Raisin in the Sun: In 1969, with the release of his film The Learning Tree, he became the first African American to direct a major American studio film. Based on Parks’s 1963 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, The Learning Tree drew inspiration from his own childhood and experiences growing up with racism and segregation, much like Hansberry’s play.
Parks, Hansberry, and Poitier achieved many groundbreaking firsts in their respective fields, and helped erase color lines that sought to separate their work from the broader canon of American art. Their work proves that they in fact helped define American Art. A statement by Poitier included in a profile that accompanied the Life featured about A Raisin in the Sun makes this pointedly clear: When asked about his responsibility to his race, he stated, "There’s lots I can do about it and lots I do do about it…. My best statement is my work as an artist.”
Life Magazine, April 27, 1959. Page 137.
Life Magazine, April 27, 1959. Page 138
Life Magazine, April 27, 1959. Page 140.
Life Magazine, April 27, 1959. Page 142.
Life Magazine, April 27, 1959. Page 144.