In his elegiac essay about Chicago-bred playwright Lorraine Hansberry, her great friend, James Baldwin, wrote: “I do not have the heart to presume to assess her work, for all of it, for me, was suffused with the light which was Lorraine. It is possible, for example, that ‘The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window’ attempts to say too much; but it is also exceedingly probable that it makes so loud and uncomfortable a sound because of the surrounding silence; not many plays, presently, risk being accused of attempting to say too much! … [But] Lorraine made no bones about asserting that art has a purpose, and that its purpose was action: that it contained the ‘energy which could change things’.”
And change things Hansberry most certainly did, even though her woefully short life came to an end in 1965, when she died of cancer at the age of 34. Barely six years earlier she had made her indelible mark on the American theater when “A Raisin in the Sun” became the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, and, more crucially, to expose audiences to the realities of a working-class African-American family on Chicago’s South Side.
“The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” which is about to open in a rare major revival by the Goodman Theatre, is Hansberry’s second play (and the last to be staged during her lifetime). It opened on Broadway in Oct., 1964, received a slew of mixed-to-negative reviews, and ran for 101 performances — kept “alive” until the night she died only because of the valiant efforts of her friends. A quasi-autobiographical riff on her marriage to Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish publisher, songwriter and political activist who she married in 1953, and with whom she lived in Greenwich Village, “Sign” deals with such issues as race, suicide, homosexuality (Hansberry may have been a lesbian, although she never “came out”), the tension between politics and art, and “la vie boheme.”
‘THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW’
When: In previews; opens May 9 and runs through June 5
Where: Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $25 – $75
Chuck Smith, one of the founding fathers of African-American theater in Chicago, and a resident director at the Goodman Theatre, is now serving as curator of the citywide Lorraine Hansberry Celebration that runs through June 5, been devised in conjunction with the Goodman production of “Sign.” And he will readily tell you that Hansberry’s profoundly Chicago-rooted play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” changed his life when, many decades ago, he saw it in a community theater production on the South Side.
“It was the first time I saw myself on stage,” Smith said. “Travis [the young son in the play] was me, sleeping on my grandmother’s couch, and trying to scrape up 50 cents for something I needed at school. But the fascinating thing is that this was not Lorrraine’s life. Her family was part of the black elite in Chicago — sort of the Obamas of the late 1930s and ’40s. Her father was a real estate broker who took Chicago’s restrictive covenant laws all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And when Lorraine was growing up, such luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson visited the family home. She got to see how others lived because she’d go along with her father when he collected the rents from the tenants in his buildings, often sitting in their kitchenettes and talking, or sitting in the limo and chatting with the chauffeur who drove her father around.”
Smith directed “A Raisin in the Sun” in a notable Goodman production in 2000, but when it came to “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” he took a pass.
“I think it’s a play a woman should direct,” he said. “And Anne Kauffman [who did such a beautiful job with the Goodman’s production of Noah Haidle’s “Smokefall” a few seasons ago] expressed interest in it. Then, when we realized it was slated to open in May — Hansberry’s birth month — the idea of a wider celebration seemed ideal.”
“What people sometimes forget is that Hansberry wrote quite a few plays that were never produced in her lifetime, and are only rarely produced today,” said Smith. “We will look at that work as part of the celebration.”
“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” an autobiographical portrait in her own words (adapted by Nemiroff, who she named her literary executor), was produced posthumously in 1969. And in 1970, “Les Blancs,” Hansberry’s play about a black intellectual who has been living in Europe, and returns to Africa for his father’s funeral amid the uprisings against colonial rule, was produced on Broadway.
“She also was a prolific writer in other forms,” said Smith. “She attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, but left for New York City in 1950, studied at The New School, and worked for Robeson— joining the staff of Freedom, the black newspaper he published. She also worked with W.E.B. BuBois, whose office was in the same building. During the McCarthy era, when Robeson’s passport was revoked, he sent Lorraine overseas in his place.”
One final wholly speculative question for Smith: What would Hansberry have thought about President Obama?
“I think she would say he hasn’t gone far enough,” he said. “But that’s the general feeling on the far left of the black community.”