“American Masters: Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart”
WHEN | WHERE Friday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Lorraine Hansberry, who died Jan. 12, 1965, after a long battle with cancer, wrote “A Raisin in the Sun,” which ran for 530 performances on Broadway from March 11, 1959, to June 25, 1960. About a family on the South Side of Chicago struggling over what to do with a $10,000 life insurance check, it starred Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee Younger, Ruby Dee as his wife, Ruth, Diana Sands as sister, Beneatha, and Claudia McNeil as family matriarch, Lena. This portrait, “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” explores how one play (and 1961 movie with the original Broadway cast) became an enduring monument to the civil rights movement.
MY SAY Hansberry was only 34 when she died, and had written only one major play — which should convey a sense of just how remarkable both that life and play were. This “American Masters” portrait by Tracy Heather Strain devotes two hours to Hansberry, yet not a minute feels padded or stretched. The reason is, Hansberry fully inhabited her life but also her times. She wrote about art, theater, race, social justice, politics and civil rights. She taught, lectured and traveled. She joined the Communist Party. She was a key supporter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an early civil rights group. She was a newspaper reporter for Paul Robeson’s progressive paper, Freedom.
She was a black lesbian playwright — the first black woman, in fact, to have a play produced on Broadway. Hansberry didn’t have one life but many, each bound to one of the most important movements in American history.
Considering all that — and also author James Baldwin’s declaration that “never before . . . had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage” — two hours might seem like a starting point. This is a good one. As a writer, Hansberry poured much of what she knew and felt into “Raisin,” the title from Langston Hughes “Harlem” (“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?”). Her father, Carl Hansberry, was a wealthy Chicago real estate broker who tried to move his family into a white neighborhood. He ended up successfully battling a whites-only covenant all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1940 where it was struck down. Meanwhile, his daughter witnessed a block of mortar that was thrown through their living room window lodge in a wall.
“Each piece of our living is a protest,” she defiantly concluded. “Raisin” would assemble all the pieces. Poitier originated the role of Walter in both play and movie, and you can only imagine the audience’s reaction when one of the great actors of his generation says, “I want to fly! I want to touch the sun!”
“Finish your eggs first,” his wife, Ruth, commands.
“Damn my eggs, damn all the eggs that ever was!”
In an interview, Poitier says that “I played that part as the man of the family who was blocked everywhere he turned, even in the family.” An early critic and later supporter of “Raisin,” the poet Amiri Baraka, says in an interview taped before his death in 2014 that “I thought it was a turn-the-other-cheek we-shall-overcome thing, then it began to dawn on me that these are the real questions — Where shall we live? What shall we do? — that black people are asking.”
Strain has convened many people to explain Hansberry’s legacy. (In one omission, her mother, Nannie Perry, who died a year after Hansberry, is not even mentioned). But 53 years after her death, Hansberry’s own self-assessment still seems best: “The human race does command its own destiny and that destiny can eventually embrace the stars.”
BOTTOM LINE Fine, and deeply researched portrait of one of the most important playwrights, and activists, in U.S. history.