You read it in school, you've seen it on stage and maybe you even have both TV adaptations on DVD. But do you know the real story behind Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking 1959 family drama A Raisin in the Sun? Read below to learn all about the Younger family, from the real events that inspired the story to the newest Broadway revival starring Denzel Washington, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Sophie Okonedo, now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Nannie Louise Hansberry, a teacher, and Carl Hansberry, a real-estate broker. Her progressive parents examined her birth certificate, and after seeing the word "Negro" printed by the hospital, immediately crossed it out and wrote "Black."
The Hansberry family bought a house at 6140 S. Rhodes Ave. in Washington Park—a white, upper-middle-class neighborhood that the playwright later described as “hellishly hostile.” They were violently attacked by their neighbors, who were constantly trying to get the family to leave the neighborhood. The Hansberrys refused, and agreed to stay in their home at all costs. "I [remember] my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our house all night with a loaded German Luger, doggedly guarding her four children," Hansberry wrote.
The Hansberrys' white neighbors were so intent on pushing them out of the neighborhood (and the family was so intent on staying) that the Hansberry v. Lee case made it to the Illinois Supreme Court. When the state ruled against the Hansberry family, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision, allowing the family to stay in their home. Thanks to the Hansberrys' persistence, it was no longer legal for white residents in the United States to push African Americans out of their neighborhoods.
While writing for the progressive black newspaper Freedom, Hansberry discovered Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” published in his book Montage of a Dream Deferred. “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”
The young author began working on a play exploring the struggles of a poor, black family living in Chicago, loosely based on her own family’s story. Originally titled The Crystal Stair (a line from the Langston Hughes poem “Mother to Son”), A Raisin in the Sun centers on the Youngers, a lower-class family who is offered a sum of money to stay away from the white neighborhood where they have purchased their dream home.
A Raisin in the Sun made history, becoming the first play written by a black woman (a 29-year-old, no less) to ever be produced on Broadway. But the journey to the Great White Way wasn’t easy—it took over a year for producer Philip Rose to raise enough funds to bring the play to New York. After short pre-Broadway tryouts in Philadelphia, New Haven and Chicago, A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway on March 11, 1959 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, starring Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee Younger, a struggling son with big dreams, Claudia McNeil as his mother Lena and Ruby Dee as his hardworking wife Ruth.
Hansberry wrote two screenplay adaptations of A Raisin in the Sun, but both were rejected by Columbia Pictures for being too controversial. The third time proved to be the charm, and a draft that more closely resembled the stage play was greenlit. Poitier, Dee and McNeil all reprised their roles for the film, which won a special award at the Cannes Film Festival.
After a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, Hansberry died at the age of 34, the same night her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, closed on Broadway. A passage from the play is engraved on her gravestone: “I care. I care about it all. It takes too much energy not to care. The why of why we are here is an intrigue for adolescents; the how is what must command the living. Which is why I have lately become an insurgent again.”
Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s ex-husband, became a champion of the late playwright’s work after her death. He adapted many of her unpublished poems, stories and letters into the play To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which premiered off-Broadway in 1968. Singer-songwriter Nina Simone, a close friend of Hansberry, wrote a song of the same name in her memory.
After the success of A Raisin in the Sun on the Great White Way, Nemiroff teamed up with Charlotte Zaltzberg to write the book for a musical adaptation of Hansberry’s groundbreaking play. Judd Woldin and Robert Brittan wrote the score, a mix of jazz, blues, gospel and of course, traditional musical theater. “It is a strange [musical] but a good one,” The New York Times reported. “It warms the heart and touches the soul.” Starring Joe Morton as Walter Lee, Ernestine Jackson as Ruth and Virginia Capers as Mama Lena, Raisin won two Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
On the 30-year anniversary of the beloved drama's Broadway premiere, PBS aired an uncut, three-hour TV adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun starring Danny Glover and Esther Rolle. Director Bill Duke told The Los Angeles Times, "This play transcends time and race. It applies to all poor people. What Lorraine says is something that should be said often: Folks that don't have money, folks that society looks down its nose at, are some of the noblest spirits among us."
Raisin returned to the Great White Way for the second time, starring stage and screen great Phylicia Rashad, Tony winner Audra McDonald and rapper-turned-actor Sean "P. Diddy" Combs in his Broadway debut. "At this point of my life, it's one of the scariest things I've ever done because it's so intense, it's so emotional, it's so hard," Combs told the Associated Press. The production made history at the Tony Awards when Rashad was honored with the Best Actress in a Play trophy, becoming the first African-American woman to receive the honor. Director Kenny Leon reassembled his leading players for a 2008 adaptation of the production, which was seen by 12.7 million viewers on ABC.
Five decades after Raisin first opened on Broadway, playwrights still continue to be inspired by Hansberry's gripping drama. Bruce Norris' homage to the iconic story, Clybourne Park, was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play. As part of its 50th anniversary season, Maryland's Center Stage produced Clybourne Park in repertory with the world premiere of Beneatha's Place, focusing on the untold story of Walter Lee's younger sister. Dubbed The Raisin Cycle, the new plays have introduced the Younger family to a brand new audience.
Now, director Kenny Leon (who also helmed the 2004 revival) brings the Younger family back to their very first Broadway home at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Why did he want to bring the drama back after only ten years? "This is the play that keeps on giving," he told Broadway.com. "If all the other great American plays—Death of a Salesman, Streetcar, A Moon for the Misbegotten—if they have been done every four or five years, surely [it’s time] to revisit A Raisin in the Sun." Featuring Denzel Washington as Walter Lee, LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Lena and Sophie Okonedo as Ruth, the new production opens officially on April 3!