Today is a big day for the Geva cast of A Raisin in the Sun – today, we leave the rehearsal room and begin the technical rehearsals on the stage. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what Lorraine Hansberry was up against when the play was first staged on Broadway in 1959. The Civil Rights Movement was really still in its infancy, and she was a young black woman trying to present a story that predominantly white audiences hadn’t heard and might not be receptive towards. And she had one other strike against her – one that somehow rarely gets noticed.
Towards the beginning of rehearsals, I read a great article by Kai Wright on The Root. The article began like this: “The thing about history is that you don’t get answers to questions you don’t ask.” It’s a fantastic point – and it really sums up my work as a dramaturg in the rehearsal hall. I spend my time asking questions, finding new ways to ask questions, and working very hard every day to find new questions to ask of the play, of the playwright, of the director and the cast.
But Wright’s point is that Lorraine Hansberry is viewed the world over for her contributions to theatre and literature and specifically for her influence on the stories presented about African Americans. But unless you dig, you will not find a discussion about her sexuality and its impact on her work, on her life and on her political activity.
It’s hard to know for sure if Lorraine Hansberry would have identified herself as a lesbian – labels like that are far more defined now, and actually seem to have taken on a new importance, given the current politics of the country. Hansberry was married, for a brief time, to a man – Robert Nemiroff – who is responsible in many ways for the continued visibility of her work. (He was the executor of her estate, and is one of the authors of the musical, Raisin, as well as the 25th Anniversary script of the play and the multiple incarnations of her story, To Be Young, Gifted and Black.) However, she dated women and belonged to the lesbian political organization Daughters of Bilitis, which was the first of its kind.
In 1961, she wrote an unpublished letter to the editor of ONE magazine. “I have suspected for a good time that the homosexual in America would ultimately pay a price for the intellectual impoverishment of women… Men continue to misinterpret the second-rate status of women as implying a privileged status for themselves; heterosexuals think the same way about homosexuals; gentiles about Jews; whites about blacks; haves about have-nots.”
As this extremely talented cast heads downstairs into the theatre to take the play one step closer to public presentation, I can’t help but think about how timely these words are today, and how indebted we are to Lorraine Hansberry for her expression of her forward-thinking ideas onstage. I only wish that, as a society, we could more fully accept her complete identity, for it is from that identity that works like A Raisin in the Sun spring.