Why This Mid-Century Lesbian Playwright's Message Endures

Lorraine Hansberry

In 1978, 17-year-old Tracy Heather Strain saw a play in Harrisburg, Pa., that made a lasting impression on her. It was To Be Young, Gifted and Black, the biographical play using Lorraine Hansberry’s words to tell her story.

“She hit me like a thunderbolt,” says Strain, who’s now the director, writer, and co-producer of Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, the first feature-length documentary on Hansberry, best known as the author of A Raisin in the Sun, the first play by a black woman ever performed on Broadway.

But as Strain’s film makes clear, there was much more to Hansberry than that. She was a passionate advocate for civil rights and, indeed, for radical changes in American society, standing up to no less than Robert Kennedy, who she found insufficiently responsive to the concerns of African-Americans. She was indeed gifted, as both a writer and an activist, and our image of her will stay forever young, as she was only 34 when she died in 1965. And she was a lesbian — an aspect of her identity that was not discussed in her lifetime but which the documentary honestly and thoroughly explores.

“I wanted this part of her identity to be as clearly presented and richly presented as the rest of the documentary,” Strain tells The Advocate.

Indeed, the film, which premieres tonight on PBS’s American Masters series, presents the whole of Hansberry’s life richly, from her upbringing on the south side of Chicago to her move to New York’s Greenwich Village, her triumph with A Raisin in the Sun, her political activities, and the work she was trying to finish toward the end of her life.

The title derives from a Hansberry quote: ”One cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world.” That Hansberry had such eyes and heart came through to Strain on her first viewing of To Be Young, Gifted and Black.

“She’s noticing race and class and gender,” Strain, a veteran documentary filmmaker and Peabody Award winner who also teaches at Northeastern University in Boston, recalls of her impression of the play. Hansberry also provided an example of a successful young black woman at a time when there was little representation of that, she adds.

Hansberry’s acuity continued to impress her years later, as she did research for the documentary. “I just am always amazed at how smart she was and how facile she was with language … It was a challenge and a delight to try to get into the head of Lorraine Hansberry,” she says, adding that she still doesn’t feel she’s gotten completely inside that brilliant, complicated head..

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Hansberry (center) holds hands with Nina Simone and other activists gathered before a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee event.

Hansberry grew up in relative privilege, the daughter of a prosperous businessman who invested in apartment buildings on the south side, renting the units to poor and working-class black families like the one in A Raisin in the Sun. Segregation, enforced in Chicago by privately agreed-upon restrictions on property sales, meant the Hansberrys usually lived in the same neighborhoods as their tenants. When they bought a home in a mostly white area, they were attacked. Carl Hansberry, Lorraine’s father, challenged the restrictions on sales of homes to African-Americans in a lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court, winning a partial victory that opened more properties to black buyers.

Having seen that affluence could not insulate African-Americans from racism, Hansberry came of age with a keen sense of injustice and embraced radical politics, moving to New York to work as a journalist and to be part of the Village’s thriving artistic and political scene. She eventually married fellow activist Robert Nemiroff and gave up journalism to focus on writing plays and fiction.

This led to the production of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway in 1959, with a cast including Sidney Poitier, already a major film star; esteemed character actress Claudia McNeil; and such stars in the making as Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, Louis Gossett Jr., and Glynn Turman. The director was Lloyd Richards, who would go on to direct the works of August Wilson.

In the play, three generations of a black family are crowded into a Chicago apartment much like those Hansberry’s father rented out. A windfall of $10,000 from the deceased patriarch’s life insurance means they can buy a home — but the one they choose is in a white neighborhood, where the residents aren’t exactly eager to integrate.

The show was a huge success. Gossett, appearing at a PBS press event, recalled that the audience’s initial reaction was stunned silence, which worried the actors — but it gave way to prolonged applause, multiple curtain calls, and cries of “Author!” It ran for over a year and brought Hansberry the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. She was the first African-American to win this award; one of the headlines about the honor referred to her as a “Negro Girl.” It was made into a film in 1961, with a screenplay by Hansberry and most of the original cast.

Hansberry used her new fame to speak out on civil rights, including that meeting with Robert Kennedy, then the U.S. attorney general, which is detailed in the film. It also gave her a connection to one of the tragic episodes of the civil rights fight, a connection that Strain says came as a surprise to her.

In 1963, Hansberry gave a speech to raise funds that allowed the Congress of Racial Equality to buy a station wagon to be used by civil rights workers in Mississippi. The volunteers using the car eventually disappeared —  James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. In 1964, the burned-out body of the car was recovered, followed by the recovery of the bodies of the men, victims of violence by segregationists.

Along with her civil rights work, Hansberry continued writing, as much as her health would allow; in 1963 she had undergone an operation for what she was told were bleeding ulcers, but was actually intestinal cancer. In those days, the documentary explains, it was common for doctors to keep cancer diagnoses from patients, believing that hearing the dire news would impede recovery.

She also was looking for love. She and Nemiroff divorced in 1962, after nine years of marriage, and Hansberry had several relationships with women; her journals, which strain drew on, make clear she identified as lesbian. The documentary explores the New York lesbian scene of the early 1960s and features interviews with author Ann Bannon, who didn’t know Hansberry but moved in the same environment, and marriage equality pioneer Edie Windsor, who did know the playwright.

One of Strain’s disappointments was that she could not persuade any of Hansberry’s surviving lesbian partners to be interviewed on camera. “That’s one of my regrets in terms of the storytelling,” she says. Strain, who is straight, adds that she showed the documentary to several lesbian associates to make sure she was portraying this part of the writer’s life fairly.

Out of necessity, Hansberry lived a compartmentalized life; there was no space where all aspects of her identity were welcome, the documentary notes. She wrote lesbian-themed stories and contributed to the pioneering lesbian publication The Ladder, but under a pseudonym or anonymously.

This compartmentalization made her an enigma to many people she interacted with. She was “something of a Turner Classic Movies mystery,” Gossett recalled, further noting, “She was very secretive, very quiet, but quite brilliant. … I miss her terribly.”

Nemiroff, who remained Hansberry’s closest friend even after their marriage ended, wanted her lesbian identity to be portrayed honestly, Strain says. He told scholar Margaret Wilkerson, when he asked her to write a biography of Hansberry, that her book must mention that Hansberry was a lesbian and a member of the Communist Party.

Nemiroff and Chiz Schultz, a producer of To Be Young, Gifted and Black’s off-Broadway debut in 1969, had planned to do a documentary about Hansberry, but those plans ended with Nemiroff’s death in 1991. Eventually, Schultz approached Strain about making the documentary, allowing her to expand public awareness of a woman she’s long believed people should know about. She and her team have worked on the film on and off (depending on the availability of funds) since 2004.

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Filmmaker Tracy Heather Strain

“I did not do this film alone.” Strain says. “We had a wonderful team of talented collaborators, people who were committed to the project.” These include her husband, Randall MacLowry, who is her partner in the production company Film Posse; he was an editor and co-producer of Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart.

The film features much archival footage as well as interviews with Hansberry’s sister and cousin; celebrities such as Poitier, Gossett, Dee, Richards, Harry Belafonte, and Amiri Baraka; scholars including Wilkerson and Imani Perry; and many more. Actresses LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Anika Noni Rose, who both appeared in the 2014 Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun, serve as narrator and as the voice of Hansberry, respectively.

Hansberry finished only one more play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which was not well-received upon its 1964 premiere but has subsequently pleased some audiences. Nemiroff finished one of her incomplete plays, Les Blancs, and assembled To Be Young, Gifted and Black from her writings. She left behind several other unfinished plays and part of a novel.

Hansberry still has much to say to our own time, as the injustices she spoke out against haven’t been eliminated, Strain says. “There is very little of what Lorraine Hansberry said in the ’50s and early ’60s that cannot be used today to make people think about making change,” says the filmmaker. And if Hansberry were here, Strain adds, “She would be one of our leaders. ... She would be speaking against the things she saw that were wrong with society.”

Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart premieres tonight at 9 Eastern on PBS’s American Masters (check local listings) and will be available to stream beginning Saturday at PBS.org/AmericanMasters and PBS apps.

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