The play that "changed American theatre forever," according to The New York Times, started with a few short lines from a long poem.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Langston Hughes wrote the poem, and Lorraine Hansberry was inspired – both by the poem and by her own real-life experience – to write A Raisin in the Sun, the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. Today, on what would have been her 82nd birthday, and we're celebrating Hansberry’s groundbreaking work.
A Raisin in the Sun (Amazon.com)
One of the central conflicts of A Raisin in the Sun was loosely based on an event from Lorraine Hansberry's own childhood. In 1938, her family bought a house in a white neighborhood, in violation of a restrictive covenant – which was legal at the time – prohibiting a black buyer from purchasing the house. The fight that ensued, against both the legal system and the hostile neighbors, deeply affected young Hansberry. Twenty years later, she channeled her memories of the struggle into one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.
A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway in 1959, but not without a struggle. The plays almost all-black cast made it a risky investment in pre-Civil Rights America, and it took more than a year for producers to raise enough money to begin. Even as the curtain rose on opening night, Hansberry was pessimistic, expecting bad reviews. But her powerful writing shone through, and the play was named the best play of the year by the New York Drama Critics' Circle, was nominated for four Tony Awards, and became a classic of American theater.
American-born actor Sidney Poitier (C) and American playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930 - 1965) (front row, 3R), along with others, stand around a piano at a party in honor of Hansberry's Broadway play 'A Raisin in the Sun,' New York, New York, March 1959. (Photo by Gordon Parks/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Two years later, around the end of the play's hugely successful Broadway run, the original cast starred in a movie version. It too was successful, with Golden Globe nominations for Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil.
A Raisin in the Sun has lived on for many years beyond the original Broadway production and movie. In 1973, it was back on Broadway, though in a different format – as a Tony Award-winning musical, named Raisin. In 1989, a movie was produced for television, starring Danny Glover and Esther Rolle. 2004 saw A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway yet again, with Sean Combs and Phylicia Rashad in leading roles, and in 2008 the cast reprised their roles in another made-for-TV movie, earning several Emmy nominations.
Times have changed greatly since Lorraine Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun. But her play remains a classic, with its themes of dreams and struggle, family and the home, still resonating today.
Written by Linnea Crowther