By Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg
On the final day of a trip I recently made to Australia, I sat with my sister-in-law, reading from one of the last diary entries that my brother wrote before his death in a mountain-climbing accident three and a half years ago. In his almost indecipherable backhand, and in between lists of equipment, two-or-three-word observations on the climate in the mountains where he was, and reminders of appointments to be made or kept on his return, John wrote a cryptic note to himself: “Enjoy new challenges. All those years at MSJ and ALLCO not for nothing.” My brother had been a high-flying lawyer for the above two firms: a wealthy man who, in his late forties, decided that he wanted to quit corporate law and devote himself to improving the lives of young people who had not had the advantages his own children enjoyed. Within six months of this decision he was dead, the years of unfulfilled promise stretching before him as a road mapped out for others, and not himself, to travel on.
As I read John’s final diary entry—and knowing how I feel about him (gone/not gone, beautiful/wasted)—I was of course, as is every person who grieves a loved one, reminded of my feelings about others who’ve passed through this inescapable human gate; in this case, Lorraine Hansberry.
In 1959, at the age of 29, Lorraine wrote to her mother in anticipation of the Broadway debut of A Raisin in the Sun:
…it is a play that tells the truth about people, Negroes and life and I think it will help a lot of people to understand how we are just as complicated as they are—and just as mixed up—but above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks—people who are the very essence of human dignity. That is what, after all the laughter and tears, the play is supposed to say. I hope it will make you proud. See you soon. Love to all.
The period in which Lorraine wrote this letter to her mother was, she said, “one of the most affirmative periods in history”— a period of upcoming revolution—to which “Walter Lee Younger and his family are tied…whether they have consciousness about it or not.”
Not only did Lorraine go on to open a play on Broadway that had an initial run of 530 performances, but she was also the first black playwright and the youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award. Her play—the play you will see here at Cal Shakes—helped to usher in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which would change race relations in America forever. Looking back on her play just before her death in 1964, she wrote in a letter to the New York Times:
25 years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation’s ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile “white neighborhood” in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house… My memories of this “correct” way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school.
Through A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine found her own way to fight, through a war waged with words. She brought the Younger family out of the shadows of Chicago’s South side and imagined for them a different life on a different side of town; absorbing white Broadway audiences within this particular family’s struggles, compelling them to care about, and feel with, a segment of the population that had heretofore been largely faceless to them, visible for the most part only as domestic workers, chauffeurs, yardmen.
Lorraine was initially applauded by her white Broadway audiences for creating a family of “everymans”; but no, Lorraine stated in a rebuke to her enthusiastic reviewers: these were not everymen. These were the Youngers:
What [reviewers] are trying to say is something very good; that they believe the characters transcend category. I believe that one of the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific. Universality, I think, emerges from truthful identity of what is…. [This family] is specifically South Side Chicago. That kind of care, that kind of attention to detail, to the extent that people accept them and believe them, to the extent that they can become anybody. [This] is definitely a Negro play before it is anything else.
Perhaps each individual is in some sense an everyman; but every “everyman” is also, in a very real sense, an individual; this is what Lorraine Hansberry believed, and she herself endures as more “individual” than most. Amongst the remnants of Lorraine’s life have flourished a field born of promises: the promise she foresaw in the decade ahead, a promise that the Youngers would not themselves fulfill because this was the 1950s, before the civil rights movement had taken full swing. And, more poignantly still, there was the promise of Lorraine‘s brilliant talent, beckoning toward future works, cut off by her cancer before these works could be written. Who knows what she’d have gone on to do? But what she did do in her brief life was amazing.
To learn more about Cal Shakes’ summer production of A Raisin in the Sun and buy tickets, click here.
Dr Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).