Why the 60th Anniversary of Lorraine Hansberry's 'A Raisin in the Sun' Resonates for Me in a Personal Way
Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Broadway premiere of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." A major American classic by any standard, it is also the first Broadway-produced play by an African-American woman. It's a milestone that remains as relevant on March 11, 2019 as it was in 1959.
Several years ago, a Seattle newspaper asked me to review a staging at Seattle Rep, one of the finest regional theaters in the country. A lifelong theater buff, I was thrilled when the editor promised free tickets and a stipend in exchange for my opinion.
Whenever anyone remounts a beloved classic of film or stage, you hope they won't ruin it. So it was with a mixture of anticipation and dread that I made my way to Seattle Center for the opening. But I needn't have worried. As you might expect from a Tony-winning outfit like Seattle Rep, the production was excellent. Although I hadn't seen the play for quite a while, its impact remained undeniable. The play resonates for anyone with a human heart, but it's especially meaningful to African Americans because it takes a hard look at a family divided by conflicting dreams and the internal and external pressures that challenge and shape the black experience to this very day.
But Hansberry's play also has a special place in my personal memory because my brother, Kurt Hill, performed the role of Walter Lee Younger (the Sidney Poitier character) when my alma mater, Drexel Catholic High School, produced the play during the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, about a year before the Voting Rights Act became law.
It was a strikingly good production and toured to the University of Georgia in Athens, which our neighbors Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes had recently desegregated. My old friend, novelist and playwright Penny Mickelbury, another Drexel graduate, was a student at UGA at the time and was in the audience for the performance.
Interestingly, my youngest brother, who was still in elementary school at the time, was recruited to play Kurt's son (Travis Younger) in the play. Not surprisingly, Kurt went on to earn a Bachelor's Degree in Speech and Drama at Xavier University in Louisiana. Two other other members of that same high school cast--both of them women--also worked in the performing arts as professionals after graduating from college.
Drexel High School was a unique experiment in educational excellence, whose graduates have gone on to enter the professions as lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects, college professors, journalists, musicians, and writers. That production of "A Raisin in the Sun" was just one example of what happened there every day. Because it was fated to be Atlanta's only "black Catholic high school," it was closed after only a few years to serve the "greater" cause of desegregation elsewhere. But for those fortunate enough to attend during those stormy years of upheaval in the Deep South, it provided a foundation for futures the Youngers and Lorraine Hansberry herself would certainly applaud.
(By the way, Kurt eventually had second thoughts about an acting career. He now holds advanced degrees in divinity and psychology and has devoted his life to helping others.)
Here's the trailer to the 1961 film version of the play. If you don't have time to watch the entire 2 minutes and 45 seconds, at least make room for producer David Suskind's opening remarks. https://youtu.be/0JUUWLLN03s
If you would like to know more about 'A Raisin in the Sun' and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, check out the award-winning biography by Imani Perry. Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, which was a New York Times 2018 Notable Book of the Year.
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