By the time Chicago-bred playwright Lorraine Hansberry died of cancer in 1963, at the age of just 34, her significant legacy was assured. She had written “A Raisin in the Sun” — the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway, and one that, with its story of a working class African-American family on Chicago’s South Side, quickly became a classic of American theater. Translated into 35 languages, and performed on stages throughout the world, it reached an even wider audience as a movie starring Sidney Poitier.
Hansberry wrote another play that received a brief Broadway run — “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”-inspired by her life in the bohemian world of New York’s Greenwich Village, where she lived with her husband, Robert Nemiroff, during the 1950s. (It closed the night she died.) And after her death, Nemiroff brought her play, “Les Blancs” (about African colonialism) to Broadway, and also adapted her autobiographical writings in “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” a show that enjoyed a long Off Broadway run during the 1968-69 season and has since received frequent revivals.
Raised as part of a prominent, groundbreaking family on Chicago’s South Side (her father, a successful real estate broker, was dubbed “The Kitcheonette King”), Hansberry spent a brief period at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before moving to New York in 1950 where, before turning to the theater, she worked as a journalist and political activist. Along the way she would cross paths with everyone from Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
Her life may have been short, but she did not waste any time. And now that life is the subject of “Lorraine Hansberry — Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” an in-depth and often revelatory documentary about the playwright to debut on PBS as part of its American Masters series. The film (airing 9 p.m. Jan. 19 on WTTW-Channel 11) has been a long and difficult odyssey for Tracy Heather Strain, its writer, director and producer, who has spent the past 14 years doing copious research, scores of interviews and countless hours of fundraising while also working at part-time jobs to make it all a reality. But as she explained during a recent visit to Chicago, the project was really in gestation for 40 years.
Now 57, Strain recalled: “I was 17, and living in Harrisburg, Pa., when my grandmother, who worked as a domestic, took my sister and me to the city to see a production of ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black.’ I don’t think I understood it all, but it was my introduction to this young black woman who was talking so frankly about race, class and many other things, and it stayed with me. I think something similar happened with Hansberry, too. When she was in college she saw a production of Sean O’Casey’s ‘Juno and the Paycock’ [about life in the working class tenements of 1920s Dublin] and that play just entered her consciousness in a powerful way.”
The filmmaking bug itself first bit Strain while she was a student at Wellesley College in the 1980s.
“I saw a slew of indie films directed by the likes of John Sayles, Jonathan Demme and Spike Lee,” she said. “But it was after seeing ‘Frances’ [the 1982 feature about the tumultuous life of film actress Frances Farmer that starred Jessica Lange], that I first began to think about making a documentary about Hansberry. I hadn’t yet seen a production of ‘Raisin in the Sun,’ but I headed to the Boston Public Library to read it.”
After graduating, Strain worked in advertising and direct marketing, but decided she wanted to change direction. She got a job working on science documentaries for PBS and went on her first professional shoot in Switzerland.
“One thing just led to another as I continually picked up new skills,” said Strain. “I even landed my first feature film job working in the art department for ‘Mississippi Masala,’ Mira Nair’s 1991 movie starring Denzel Washington. That also marked my first visit to a Southern state.”
Now president and CEO of the Boston-based media companyTheFilm Posse, which she runs with her husband, RandallMacLowry (who she credits with “believing in my dream”), Strain, who, along the way earned her Masters in Technology, Innovation and Education from Harvard University, wrote and directed “The Story We Tell,” an installment of “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” a three-part documentary that aired on PBS in 2003. Most recently she worked as a producer on PBS’ “The American Experience.”
As she began work on the Hansberry film, Strain reached out to Chiz Schultz, who runs the Hansberry trust, and has produced documentaries about Paul Robeson and others, as well as the 1989 TV version of “A Raisin in the Sun” starring Danny Glover. It was through Schultz that she managed to get interviews with Poitier, as well as Ruby Dee, director Lloyd Richards and producer Phil Rose, all of whom were part of “Raisin’s” Broadway premiere. She also talked to Harry Belafonte, playwright Lynn Nottage and several of Hansberry’s relatives, and made visits to Chicago, about which Hansberry once said “each piece of our living there is a protest.”
Strain’s documentary deals extensively with the playwright’s political engagement, her self-doubt about not physically putting herself on the line in the civil rights fight, her father’s pain of self-imposed exile to Mexico, the complex process of bringing “Raisin” to Broadway, and Hansberry’s lesbian identity.
“From the start, what inspired me about Hansberry was the sense of how something inside of her had to get out into the world, and how she made that happen,” said Strain.