Lorraine Hansberry's Legacy
Kirsten Greenidge is the author of The Luck of the Irish, which premiered at the Huntington Theatre Company in March 2012 and opened recently at Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3. Like A Raisin in the Sun, The Luck of the Irish explores the American Dream through questions of black identity, home ownership, and segregation. We asked Kirsten to reflect on the personal impact of Lorraine Hansberry’s legacy.
I first read A Raisin in the Sun during my junior year of high school for Ms. Barry’s English class at Arlington High School. By then I knew I was to be a writer, and I was trying to figure out how one does such a thing, because really, it’s a little crazy. At the time I was reading August Wilson’s plays as they were being published and was also enamored with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams. I remember Ms. Barry, who was a talented storyteller, opening a volume of poetry and reading most of Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred.” I don’t think she got through the entire poem. She was always interrupting her own lessons. “What happens to a dream deferred?” Stop. Her dark eyes shined underneath blunt cut bangs. One arm was propped by her crutch; she kept breaking the same leg over and over that whole year. What? What? What happens to a dream deferred? I wanted to shout. But I was beyond shy in class. Instead I sat there with my insides melting in anticipation. “That’s the question, isn’t it?,” Ms. Barry continued. “What happens? Does it dry up . . . ?” Yes! Yes it could, I wanted to scream. It could, and life would be unbearable, my 16-year-old heart whispered inside my chest. That evening, after Ms. Barry had handed out the play to each of us, I read it immediately and was stunned. It wasn’t that the play felt like my own family’s story, although there were obvious similarities. It was that, without yet haven taken any courses on “the other” or “the politics of inclusion,” before having read Frantz Fanon or Henry Louis Gates or Cornel West or even Toni Morrison, I felt, at my core, that I knew, without having the language yet to articulate it, what Lorraine Hansberry was doing in this play, with this story — inspired by her own family’s move to an all-white neighborhood — and I was charged by the idea that she was choosing to tell it in a way that felt important and elegant, bold yet palpable, stunning and devastatingly familiar.
That Hansberry’s story was both black and American blew my mind. In his Forward to the 30th anniversary edition, Robert Nemiroff explains how carefully Hansberry had to rewrite, seeing as she was a new writer, a black writer, and working with a new director in the form of Lloyd Richards. What struck me when I first read Nemiroff’s essay was how difficult Hansberry’s task was in the late 1950s: to deliver this story in such a way that the Youngers’ experiences could be felt by audiences who might not happen to be anything like them. It’s tricky. It’s crafting the specifics that, as they accumulate, render the whole of the thing universal and undeniable.
It is my fortune that I’ve come after Hansberry and Shange; Baraka and Bullins and Wilson; Smith and Nottage and Parks and Hall and Diamond. Because those specifics and the crafting and recrafting of them so that a work’s message can reach many communities is no small feat. The very idea of attempting it in 1959 might have sent me to law school instead.
What I realized, without knowing it precisely at 16, is that this willingness to rework and reconfigure is peculiar to many writers. It is not that they do not bring forth engaging and important work. Rather, it is that Lorraine Hansberry was able to recognize the cultural moment within which her work — written first as The Crystal Stair and then later rewritten and re-titled — was about to inhabit. To see the Younger family as a monolithic entity is a mistake, especially in terms of class and identity. In Raisin the many communities that make up “the black community” have the opportunity to sing, to soar, to fight, and to dream. And this, on stage, is extraordinary. Then and now.
So when I sat back in Ms. Barry’s class after reading A Raisin in the Sun, I understand now that it was no accident I felt, tremendously, what Walter Lee explains to Karl Lindner. “What I mean,” he says, “is that we come from people who had a lot of pride. I mean — we are a very proud people.”
When a play makes you feel that, no matter who you are, it is a very special thing, it is a gift the writer has created for her audience. I am glad and grateful A Raisin in the Sun is precisely, specifically, that.
— Kirsten Greenidge