Yes, in Fact, it Does Explode
It’s probably not much of an exaggeration to say that Joseph Asagai was the first African many black Americans met. Never mind that he is a fictional character.
Asagai, an exchange student from Nigeria, represents two dynamics that would play out in different ways throughout the ‘60s: the optimism in the first years of African nations’ independence from their European colonial rulers; and the shifting nature of black America’s relationship to Africa, and ultimately to blackness itself. The latter is dramatized in its essence by the plight of Beneathea Younger, a young sista caught between the affections of Asagai and of George Murchinson, an upwardly mobile brotha dismissive of Asagai’s pride in his homeland. Benethea rejects George, but we never find out if she takes Asagai up on his proposal of marriage and relocation to the motherland.
That storyline would be a weighty enough subject in and of itself, but in fact it is secondary to the main story of A Raisin in the Sun, the groundbreaking play by Lorraine Hansberry which debuted on Broadway in March 1959. The more-famous main plotline concerns Walter Lee Younger’s desire to move his family from an apartment in the South Side of Chicago into a new home that happens to be in an all-white neighborhood. The entire play, looking back on it after 50 years of American history, seems uncannily prescient: it captures black America at one of its most profound precipices, staring out at possibilities prior generations had little chance of envisioning, and wondering if they can make that giant leap into an uncertain future.
Hansberry (1930-1965), a native of the South Side herself, was uniquely positioned to not only perceive this moment in time, but also to capture it. First, the resistance the Youngers would face in trying to integrate a neighborhood parallels the playwright’s own life. Her father, Carl Hansberry, had tried to move the family into a previously all-white section of Chicago, only to be rebuffed by the existence of a restrictive housing covenant forbidding black home ownership in the area. He fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won a narrow decision upholding his right to move into the new location. That home became something of a South Side salon for the black left; a young Lorraine would grow up with titans like W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson as frequent guests (not to mention her father’s brother, a renowned professor of African studies at Howard University).
Hansberry dropped out of college after two years (the University of Wisconsin, where she was the first black woman to live in her dorm), and moved to New York City, where she became a reporter and editor for progressive publications (including Freedom, which Robeson published and Dubois advised). She also met Robert Nemiroff while protesting for the desegregation of a college basketball team; the two eventually married and moved to Greenwich Village. Around that time, Hansberry felt the need to deploy her writing skills in a different direction, turning from journalism to drama.
A Raisin in the Sun took eight months to write, and one dinner party to find a patron: Philip Rose, who took the project on as de facto producer and helped get it opened on Broadway. The original cast included the crème of late-‘50s black acting talent: Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee (succeeded by Ossie Davis); Claudia McNeil as Mama; Ruby Dee as Walter’s wife Ruth; Diana Sands as Beneathea; Ivan Dixon as Asagai; Louis Gossett as George; and Glynn Turman as Travis, the son of Walter Lee and Ruth. The play took New York by storm, running for more than 500 performances and winning the New York Drama Critics Award for best play. The 1961 film version, directed by Daniel Petrie from a screenplay adapted by Hansberry, featured all the stage principals reprising their roles on screen.
The effects of A Raisin in the Sun on black culture haven’t stopped rippling in the years since its premiere. First, it made an instant star of Hansberry, who like other“ overnight’ celebrities had to make a sudden adjustment to being recognized constantly and juggling various demands on her time. But that nouveaux fame didn’t translate into mass acceptance of her work. NBC rejected a teleplay it had commissioned from her about slavery, and the eventual A Raisin in the Sun screenplay was her third whack at it; the studio rejected her first two versions as too radical.
Despite the opposition, Hansberry stuck to her activist guns, both in her writing and her support of progressive causes. She offered financial and artistic support to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and led a walkout of prominent black artists and activists during a meeting with Attorney General Robert Kennedy in which she upbraided Kennedy for the administration’s lack of tangible action on civil rights.
On a broader level, A Raisin in the Sun opened the floodgates for a generation of black theater. It was another milestone in Poitier’s ascendance toward full-fledged stardom, launched Gossett’s career in earnest, and allowed the other principals to stay busy for years to come (Dixon would co-star in the TV show Mission: Impossible). It also emboldened a new generation of black playwrights, directors and producers.
Throughout the ‘60s, black theater exploded all over America – not ominously, as from Hughes’ poem, “A Dream Deferred”, which gave Hansberry her play’s title, but as a cultural phenomenon, an injection of vitality into the art form, and a new platform for the discussion and exploration of blackness in modern America. There had been black plays before, but never had any of them captured the attention of a mainstream arts audience.
After A Raisin in the Sun, the next quantum leap was made by LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman (1964), which challenged both theatrical and societal convention in its provocative look at the intersecting dynamics of race and sex. From there, black theater companies sprang up in many areas, as part of the Black Arts Movement that took hold in the mid-‘60s.
One of the most important was the Negro Ensemble Company, the first professional black theater company, in New York in 1967. This wave of black dramatic creativity would continue into the ‘70s, accompanied by a renewal of black musical theater. (One unintended consequence was that Hansberry’s Mama, the strong, elderly matriarch, would become a stock figure in black culture, sent up rip-roaringly in the “Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” vignette of George C. Wolfe’s 1986 satire The Colored Museum.)
Hansberry would not live to see all this happen. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1963, and died in 1965, the day after her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window closed on Broadway (after 101 performances). Nemiroff became her literary executor, and secured the publication of her unpublished scripts. He also put together a tribute to Hansberry (they had divorced before her passing, but remained partners in promoting her art), based upon her own writings and testimonials from Poitier, Robeson and a cast of thousands. That tribute became the 1968 Broadway production To Be Young, Gifted and Black; seeing that show prompted Nina Simone to create a black-pride anthem by the same name, which became one of her biggest hits.
Hansberry didn’t live to see A Raisin in the Sun became part of the American theatrical canon. There was the 1973 adaptation of it as a musical, choreographed by Donald McKayle, starring Joe Morton, and featuring a pre-Good TimesRalph Carter as Travis. There was a 25th anniversary revival, which was subsequently produced for PBS (so much by then for Hansberry’s writing being too hot for TV) starring Danny Glover. It returned to Broadway in 2004 (and TV in 2008), starring Sean Combs and Phylicia Rashad. And there have been countless productions of it over the years by companies of every shape and size. The script’s main issue of whether or not to move into an all-white neighborhood may not be as burning a societal question anymore, but its subtext about the nature of black modernity and progress lives on, as indicated by all the post-Obama whither-black-Americans art and analysis we’ve seen these last few months.
Finally, Hansberry didn’t live to see what another member of the A Raisin in the Sun creative team would go on to do. The play’s director, Lloyd Richards, would have a monumental impact on American theater. He was one of the first faculty members of the Negro Ensemble Company. He would continue in theater education as dean of the Yale School of Drama. In 1979, as artistic director at the Yale Repertory Theater, he mounted A Lesson from Aloes by the South African playwright Athol Fugard. In the ‘80s, he headed up the National Playwrights Conference, where he nurtured the work of a generation of talent including Wendy Wasserman and Christopher Durang. But while there, he took on a pivotal role in the development of one voice among all others.
He selected a submission by a Pittsburgh-based writer to develop for production. That playwright was August Wilson, and that play was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Richards directed its 1984 Broadway premiere, which like A Raisin in the Sun received best-play honors from the New York Drama Critics Circle. After its success came five more Wilson-Richards collaborations ( Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars) as part of Wilson’s epic ten-play cycle through the 20th Century. Wilson became the most produced black playwright, and perhaps the best-known American playwright period, of the ‘90s and ‘00s, adding to a legacy with roots in two humble, vibrant homes – the Hansberry’s and the Younger’s - on the South Side of Chicago.
Lorraine Hansberry, no doubt, would have been proud of the success of everyone involved in bringing her words to life, and happy to know that the lowly raisin that came to life in 1959 had evolved into a dream no longer hopelessly deferred.