I didn’t start out to write a play with Lorraine Hansberry in it, let alone Hansberry in a tight sweater and Capri pants! My friend Harry, from my old theatre days in NYC asked me to write something about James Baldwin. Five years later we’re about to open ‘Waiting For Giovanni’ a two act play (New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco, August 19th www.nctcsf.org) about the moments in his life just before he published his second novel, ‘Giovanni’s Room.’
"Giovanni's Room" was one of the first ‘gay’ novels I’d ever read (I was an isolated 15 year old lesbian when I found it in a stack of Black novels my father had) and it changed my world. The time was 1957; Baldwin was told it would ruin his career in literature and that Martin Luther King, Jr. would probably never invite him onto another march! But Baldwin wrote it anyway and it’s a monument to his courage, his brilliantly sensual use of language and maybe to stubbornness.
But early on I found I was writing a play with all men. It’s not a realistic play—it all takes place in Baldwin’s head as he wrestles with his demons. But who were the women in his world? Lorraine Hansberry jumped right out at me. She was a contemporary and an actual friend of his—not that I couldn’t include her if she had not been since it’s a ‘dream play.’
Hansberry was the first African American woman to have a play on Broadway, “A Raisin in the Sun” (1959). (Please see the film with Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands and burn any copies you can find of the Sean Combs travesty…or maybe just wipe him off the tape and keep Sanaa Lathan and Audra MacDonald). At 29, she was the youngest and only the 5th woman to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.
She was an amazing thinker and activist who, before she died, reached out to the lesbian community. She is fabled to have died at home with her long time female lover—something that we hope will be confirmed now that her private papers have been opened up for research.
Hansberry has been a personal inspiration for me as much as Baldwin has. She too was told she was ‘writing off topic’ when her next play featured white characters. It was echoed for me in the 1990s when some people told me that writing a Black Lesbian vampire novel was a bad idea!
I admire Hansberry’s ability to look at the world through a big lens, to be able to see herself in the context of all that was around her not just the narrow life being lived just in front of her. Figuring out who we are can really be aided when we can look at others and see their effort too; that’s why people go to plays after all.
Most critical discussion of “A Raisin in the Sun” focuses on the battle between the older son and his mother over how he should spend the late father’s insurance money. Critics almost uniformly underplay the daughter’s role in the piece. She’s a great stand in for Hansberry: brash, smart, independent and ambitious. She refuses to be subject to her African boyfriend’s insistence on the ‘female’ role or her brother’s dismissal of her career aspirations. Her play also raises the issue of a woman’s right to abortion along with the other ideas few were talking about any where much less on a Broadway stage.
A more intimate look at Hansberry’s life is sure to be exciting and illuminating. In the mean time her fans have subsisted on whispers and the brilliance of her writing. Putting her in my play meant I reread her work and essays about her as I constructed her dialogue. It was like getting to have long conversations with one of my heroes. Her genius did not fail.
The actress playing Lorraine, Desiree Rogers, is an amazing embodiment of Hansberry’s spirit and smarts…and she wears a sweater well!
Some rewards for writing can not be predicted.