Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (1930-1965)
Jeanne-Marie A. Miller
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The primary problem that might be encountered is the student's lack
of familiarity with black American drama. The images of blacks on the early
American stage reflected their place in American life. Dramatic expression,
exclusively by white authors, made of them contented, faithful slaves or
servants, tragic figures of mixed blood, and comic characters. The comic
figures were dominant.
Despite prejudice and racism, black playwrights were known in the American
theater as early as 1823 when a play entitled King Shotaway, written
by Mr. Brown (whose first name is uncertain) was produced by the African
Grove Theater and Company. Also in the nineteenth century, Brown,
a former slave, published The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (1858),
and William E. Easton's play Dessalines was produced in Chicago
(1893). From the beginning, the concern of most black playwrights has been
the realistic depiction of the black experience.
During the twentieth century, growing out of the increased interest
of American writers in folk material, came a renewed interest among white
playwrights in blacks as source material for drama. Consider, for instance,
Eugene O'Neill's The
Emperor Jones (1920). The 1920s, the period of the Harlem Renaissance,
also introduced the first serious (that is, nonmusical) dramas by black
playwrights on Broadway--for example, Willis Richardson's A Chip Woman's
Fortune (1923) and Garland Anderson's Appearances (1925).
One of the most popular plays on Broadway during the 1930s was The
Green Pastures (1930), a black folk fable written by Marc Connelly,
a white playwright. As the depression worsened, plays that protested against
the social and economic conditions that sorely afflicted people were produced.
Paul Peters and George Sklar's Stevedore (1934), for example, centers
on a black militant hero who defends his rights as a man and a worker on
the New Orleans docks.
Though blacks were gaining some experience on Broadway, in community
theaters, and in drama groups in black institutions of higher learning,
it was the Federal Theater Project, which grew out of the depression and
provided work for unemployed theater people, that gave a major boost to
blacks in theater. The post-World War II years found some white playwrights
concentrating on the tense situation that existed when black soldiers,
who had been in Europe fighting for democracy, returned to a segregated
America. For instance, Strange Fruit (1945), a drama adapted from
a novel by its author Lillian Smith and her sister Esther, makes a bitter
commentary on racial segregation, intolerance, and injustice in this country.
Two dramas by black playwrights reached Broadway in the 1940s: white
playwright Paul Green and Richard
Wright's Native Son (1941) and Theodore Ward's Our Lan'
(1947). The play Native Son is a dramatization of Wright's powerful
novel about Bigger Thomas and the corrosive effects of American society
on him. Our Lan' concerns a group of newly freed slaves who search
for economic independence and security during the latter days of the Civil
War and the early Reconstruction period.
Ironically, as the heightened period of the civil rights movement of
the 1950s produced a plethora of plays by black writers affected by the
mood of the country, white playwrights who employed black themes and characters
returned to the traditional images of blacks. Consider, for instance, Berenice
Sadie Brown, a black cook, in Carson McCullers's A Member of the Wedding
(1950) and the black slave from Barbados who confesses to being a witch
in Arthur Miller's The
Crucible (1953) (the setting is the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692).
During the 1950s, Off Broadway teemed with plays by black writers: William
Branch's Medal for Willie (1951) and In Splendid Error (1955);
Alice Childress's Trouble in Mind (1955) and Loften Mitchell's Land
Beyond the River (1957), for example. At the end of the decade, twenty-eight-year-old
Lorraine Hansberry made her debut on Broadway with A Raisin in the Sun
(1959). She was the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway
and the first black playwright and youngest playwright to win the New York
Drama Critics Circle Award. The production was significant in other ways.
Not only were the playwright and the cast, except for one, black, but so
were the director and some of the investors. Blacks came out in large numbers
to see this award-winning work that truthfully depicts a black working-class
family who triumphs over the debilitating conditions of the ghetto. With
Raisin American drama and blacks reached a new milestone. The play
has been translated into over thirty languages and produced in many countries.
In 1961 it became a film and in 1973 a Tony Award-winning musical.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Some of the major themes of her works are as follows: the slave system
and its effect on Americans; the deprivation and injustice suffered by
blacks because of racism; moral choices; deferred dreams of black Americans;
self-determination of African countries; ability to control one's own destiny;
negative effects of voguish movements; and relationships between men and
women. The major historical and personal issues that should be emphasized
are slavery and the Civil War; contrasting portraits of slavery; the civil
rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, whose antecedents were in the black
protest and revolt of slaves, such as Hannibal in The Drinking Gourd;
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Hansberry followed the trend of realism. In her dramas she wished to
illustrate character. As an artist she believed that all people had stature
and that there were no dramatically uninteresting people. She searched
for the extraordinary, the uniqueness in the ordinary. She embraced the
social nature of art, and she dissected personality as it interacted with
society. Her dramatic style included the use of colloquial speech, a sense
of the rhythm of language, the use of symbolism, and departures from realistic
speech into the lyrical.
Hansberry wrote for the general theater audience. The particular audience
for whom The Drinking Gourd was written was the general television
audience of 1960. The drama was commissioned by NBC for producer-director
Dore Schary to initiate a series of ninety-minute television dramas commemorating
the centennial of the Civil War. This drama was a pre- Roots work,
which was to have exposed audiences to a portrait of slavery by a black
writer. Since Roots was presented on television during the 1970s,
audiences seem to be better educated about a black writer's point of view
about the issue of slavery.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
At the center of The Member of the Wedding (1950), a drama by
Carson McCullers, a white writer, is a black cook who holds together the
white family for whom she works. Unlike McCullers's play, in which the
black cook's family is hardly ever seen, Hansberry's A Raisin in the
Sun dramatizes the story of a black domestic and her family. It is
a story told from inside the race. The Drinking Gourd treats the
family relationships of a slave-owning family and their slaves.
Other dramas about slavery with which The Drinking Gourd may
be compared and contrasted are the following by white authors: George L.
Aiken's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), a dramatization of Harriet
Beecher Stowe's novel; Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon (1859);
James D. McCabe, Jr.'s The Guerrillas (1863); and James A. Herne's
The Reverend Griffith Davenport (1899). The earliest extant play
by a black writer is also about slavery: William
Wells Brown's The Escape (1858).
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
Some study questions that students might find useful are as follows:
1. (a) What is Hansberry's background?
(b) What is her philosophy of art?
(c) How does she move from the particular to the universal in her plays?
(d) How does she use language in her plays?
Paper topics that have proved useful are as follows:
2. (a) The role of women in Hansberry's plays
(b) Family relationships
(c) Language in Hansberry's plays
(d) Love between man and woman
(e) Relationships between women and men
The introductions to Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine
Hansberry, written by Julius Lester for the 1972 edition and by Margaret
B. Wilkerson for the 1983 edition, as well as the critical backgrounds
by Robert Nemiroff in each of these editions.
The collection of essays and the bibliography that appear in the special
issue of Freedomways (vol. 19, no. 4, 1979) entitled "Lorraine
Hansberry: Art of Thunder, Vision of Light."
The first two chapters on Hansberry's life in Anne Cheney's book Lorraine
Hansberry, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.
A film entitled Lorraine Hansberry: The Black Experience in the Creation
of Drama, Princeton, N.J.: Films for the Humanities, 1976.