The Goodman Theatre has kicked off a month-long celebration of the life of Chicago’s own playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author of the iconic “A Raisin In The Sun,” by staging her last work, “The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window,” and arranging a series of events around town.
The Lorraine Hansberry Celebration, from April 30 to June 5, curated by Goodman Resident Director Chuck Smith, honors Hansberry’s life and career.
The celebration will consist of programs and performances that focus on the author’s Chicago roots, the forces that shaped her groundbreaking work and her legacy.
In addition to scholarly discussions and events designed to highlight her life and career, the celebration will culminate in two major events:
- “Lorraine Hansberry Day” will be proclaimed by the City of Chicago on May 19, commemorating what would have been Hansberry’s 86th birthday; and
- The Lorraine Hansberry Awards on May 24 will honor five African-American women, all natives of Chicago and contemporaries of Hansberry, whose work helped transform American theater.
At the center of the celebration is Obie Award winning director Anne Kauffman’s revival of “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” which premiered on Broadway just three months before Hansberry’s death at age 34 in 1965.
“‘Sidney” was Lorraine’s last work and a lot of effort came from the artists to keep it open because they knew she was dying and didn’t want the show to close before she passed.” Chuck Smith told N’DIGO. “They raised money and did everything they could to keep the show running and they were able to. They didn’t close before she died.”
Though set in the politically idealistic world of Greenwich Village in New York in 1964, “The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window” reflects today’s political climate and holds a mirror to the injustice and corruption of the contemporary world.
At the play’s center is Brustein’s apartment, the gathering place for an eclectic group of bohemians during a time of rapid change. As activist Sidney gets increasingly swept up in the radical issues of his day, he ignores the escalating tension mounting between himself and his wife Iris.
“It’s kind of what happened in Lorraine’s life,” Smith explained. “She and her husband started to drift at the tail end of their marriage. They also remained good friends, and in fact, when she passed, she had him to be in charge of her estate. That’s how good friends they were, but their love relationship sort of faded apart. That’s pretty much what happens in the play ‘Sidney.’”
Smith noted that Kauffman, the play’s director, has been a champion for this work for a while. “It’s not an easy play to do, but she’s been trying to get it done for quite some time, and the Goodman agreed,” he said.
“We happened to schedule the play to run in the month of May. Lorraine’s birthday is May 19, so I thought this would be a good time just to celebrate Lorraine during the run of this show.”
What Smith likes is that Hansberry was a Chicagoan born and raised. What disappoints him, he says, is that her native city has never “celebrated Lorraine Hansberry the way I think she should be celebrated. She was a really heavy-duty lady.”
Heavy duty with a fascinating background. Lorraine was the daughter of Carl Hansberry, whom Smith describes as “quite a character. He was a real estate agent, activist, and very well-to-do. Owned lots of property.”
When Lorraine was eight, Hansberry bought a house in the Washington Park area, around 62nd and Rhodes, that was previously restricted to whites, who tried to kick the Black family out because of restrictive covenants in place that would prohibit white families from selling to Blacks.
The Kenwood Improvement Association filed a mandatory injunction for the Hansberry family to vacate their home, which was granted by a Circuit Court judge and upheld on appeal by the Illinois Supreme Court.
“But Carl challenged that ruling and took it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1940, and won,” Smith says.
“That’s basically how those restricted covenants got abolished in Chicago. But in trying to do that, Carl was hounded by the city. Every step of the way, they made his life miserable.
“Because of the all the racism he encountered, he decided to move to Mexico and was in fact in the process of moving the Hansberry family to Mexico when he died of a heart attack in 1946. Carl Hansberry. He was one heck of a dude.”
Smith explained that Carl Hansberry was the guy that if you were somebody – like Paul Robeson or Langston Hughes – and you came to Chicago, you would go by their house.
“That’s whose house you’d have to go by,” Smith said. “So Lorraine was exposed to all of this early. She graduated from Englewood High School and then went up to the University of Wisconsin for about a year, decided that wasn’t for her, then went to New York and actually started working for Paul Robeson and writing for his ‘Freedom’ magazine.
“They became real tight and at the time, Paul Robeson was not allowed to leave the country. So outside the country, Lorraine would go be his spokesperson.”
Smith also explained that as a youngster, Lorraine would tag along with her father when he went around to collect the rent at his properties.
In those days, the landlord or property owner would knock on the door to collect the rent. “So Carl knew all these people and they would invite him in the house when he knocked on their doors. They would sit around and talk and then get around to giving him the money for rent,” Smith said.
So those rounds of collecting rent with her dad and learning what those types of families were like, as well her own family’s sour experience with racial segregation, provided Lorraine with the genesis for writing her groundbreaking work, “A Raisin In The Sun.”
“A lot of people think ‘Raisin’ is about Lorraine’s life, her family’s life. But it’s not,” Smith said. “Her spirit is in the character of Beneatha, the young girl, but that play has nothing to do with how she grew up.
“What ‘Raisin In the Sun’ did,” Smith continued, “was opened up all these doors for Black theater. That’s the one that kicked the door down. Earlier works opened the doors, but she kicked them down because Lorraine became the first African-American female writer to be produced on Broadway.”
The play also had the first Black director of a Broadway show, Lloyd Richards. It opened at the Barrymore Theater on Broadway in 1959 and won the New York Drama Critics Circle’s award for best play of that year. It was also nominated for four Tony Awards in 1960 for Best Play, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director.
It also had to be something to see, because of its wealth of Black acting talent. Over its 530-performance run, the cast included: Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Ivan Dixon, Louis Gossett, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, and Glynn Turman. The famed movie version filmed in 1961 featured the original Broadway cast.
The “New York Times” agreed with Smith’s “kicking the doors down” assessment by saying that A Raisin In The Sun “changed American theater forever.”
Hansberry herself noted that her play introduced details of Black life to the overwhelmingly white Broadway audiences for the first time, while director Richards observed that it was the first Broadway play to which large numbers of Black people were drawn.
“Lorraine came from quite a family and was quite an individual on her own. She definitely made her own mark,” said Smith, who directed his own major revival of “Raisin” at the Goodman in 2000.
Smith says that during the course of the month-long celebration activities, there will be seminars on the rest of Hansberry’s works – “quite a few of them haven’t been produced, but they are important,” Smith said, and these will be in the form of discussions with scholars from Northwestern University and others who know the works.
In addition, bus tours are scheduled to visit Chicago locales important to Hansberry’s writings and her family life. For a full schedule of information and activities, visit goodmantheatre.org/hansberry.
For tickets to “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” in the Goodman’s 856-seat Albert Theatre through June 5, visit GoodmanTheatre.org, call 312/443-3800, or purchase them in person at the box office at 170 North Dearborn. Tickets are $25-$75, with special $10 student tickets.