Keeping in the theme of Black History Month, I'd like to honour a new African American playwright every day.
Of course, to start we had Langston Hughes last week. Jumping off his work, we'll leap straight to Lorraine Hansberry who openly drew inspiration from Hughes' works.
You probably all know Hansberry from her award winning, heart-breaking, horrifyingly beautiful Broadway work A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Did I praise it enough in that last sentence? Read the play and you'll totally get it.
Hansberry was in born 1930 and she passed away from Pancreatic cancer in 1965. She wrote five dramatic works in her lifetime, each one inspired by and provoking discussion around African-American history and the influence of that history on the modern African-American.
Hansberry was known for her compassion and for her high hopes in humanity. Her humanist qualities drove her towards constructed some of the most dynamic characters I've come across in dramatic literature. It's really a strange feeling to read one of her works. Each character is likeable and then, a second later, completely detestable, but yet, all at once, understandable. Hansberry loved people. She has faith in mankind and you can tell she channels that faith into her characters.
Of course, it wouldn't be an article about Hansberry without speaking about her political influence. Hansberry had a really unique, some might say controversial, political presence. She wrote and spoke out for a number of Black Power groups and publications. The interesting and unique thing about Hansberry, however, is that she seems to see things from all sides. She really doesn't seem to allow any value to be placed on categories and that, in fact, is what she was speaking out against. So, while others were speaking specifically to African American issues, Hansberry spoke to universal issues of equality. She did, of course, identify as a Black woman but she often publicly explored the contradictions between those two categories. Her public declarations always were in the interest of discovery and never really in the interest of over-powering anyone else. In her words: "Must I hate men anymore than I hate White people--Because they are savage or commit savage acts? Of course not."
Though Raisin was her most famous work, I think her most compelling statement was made with her final piece Les Blancs which was released after in 1994, after Hansberry's passing. To my knowledge, she had the opportunity to workshop the piece but never saw it to its full production. I almost cried reading the piece. It is set in Africa and it explores the complex relationships between the White settlers and the Natives. I don't know how she did it but she successfully creates an entire community onstage. It's fantastic and so endearing...Please read it. Some call the work preachy but I would argue that, if it's preachy, then it is preachy from several points of view. However, her characters are so confused by so many things that it keeps them from being too preachy. After all, how can anyone be preachy if their doubting their own beliefs? That complexity of thought, was Hansberry's hallmark.
Though her collection of works is minimal, it is absolutely worth studying. Hansberry's contribution to theatrical history, Black history, and world history at large has been a true gift from a brilliant woman.