Book Shelf THE STACKS

One Concrete Thing

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On Today’s Menu:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
** Share some birthday cake
for a ground-breaking playwright.
** Linger to ponder what artists owe society.
** Savor a last ½ cup admiring what a child actor can add to a play.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

STT-48

First Sip:

Beneatha:
I never got over that.

Asagai:
What?

Beneatha:
…What one person could do for another.
Fix him up—sew up the problem,
make him all right again. That was the
most marvelous thing in the world.
I wanted to do that. I always thought it was the
one concrete thing in the world
that a human being could do.
Fix up the sick, you know—and make them
whole again.

– from A Raisin in the Sun
by
Lorraine Hansberry
beginning of Act 3

Lorraine Hansberry
at the New Haven production of A Raisin in the Sun
just prior to its opening on Broadway
1959
photo credit: New York Public Library

.


Slice of Cake:

The Life & Art of Lorraine Hansberry
as told in 4 Acts


Act 1: Her Family Home

Lorraine Hansberry’s family had just moved into their new home
when a neighbor hurled a cement block through the front window.1
It barely missed hitting 8-year-old Lorraine in the head.

Before the Hansberrys had moved in, it had been an all-white neighborhood.
The neighborhood association filed a legal injunction to force the family to move out.

Lorraine’s father fought this all the way to the Supreme Court.
He won. By unanimous opinion.
It was the landmark 1940 US Supreme Court case Hansberry v. Lee (311 U.S. 32). 2

But it was an incomplete victory. True, more housing opened up for African Americans. Yet the rules allowing segregation were still allowed to stand. As activist Salamishah Tillet writes, ‘Black and white people remained segregated and mob violence often greeted the African-American families that moved in.’
This included the Hansberrys.3


Act 2: Powerful Influences

Both of Lorraine Hansberry’s parents were civic minded.
Her mother, a driving school teacher, was active in the Chicago Republican Party and served as a ward committee woman.4
Her father was a well-known philanthropist, and he served as the secretary of their local NAACP chapter.5

Visitors to the family home included the poet Langston Hughes, historian and activist W E B DuBois, actor Paul Robeson, Olympian Jesse Owens, boxer Joe E Louis, and jazz legend Duke Ellington.6

Later in Lorraine’s life, she became close friends with Nina Simone. Lorraine even became godmother to Simone’s daughter.7 Simone said that she got her ‘political education’ from Hansberry.

We never talked about men or clothes or
other such inconsequential things when we got together.
It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution—
real girls’ talk.

– Nina Simone 4


Act 3:  Work

Oh, what I think I must
tell this world!

– Lorraine Hansberry
5

When Lorraine Hansberry was 20 years old, she moved to New York City for college, but soon dropped out and began working as a journalist at Freedom Newspaper, writing about national and international human rights.

Living in Greenwich Village, she saw a lot of theater. This was the early 1950s, right when American theater was embracing social issues in a new way.5

When she turned to playwriting, Hansberry often struggled.
One night, in utter frustration, she gave up,
throwing the pages of her play onto the floor.

Bob didn’t rebuke me at all
except with a look.
He just got down on the floor
and picked up every sheet of it.
He put it back in order and
kept the whole thing out of my sight for several days.
And then one night when I was moping around,
he got it out and put it in front of me.
I went to work
and finished it.

– Lorraine Hansberry
(acknowledging her life-long friend
and one-time husband Robert Nemiroff.)
5

What happened next, happened pretty quickly.

In 1957, Hansberry finished A Raisin in the Sun.
In 1959, it opened on Broadway to standing ovations.8

When the director talked to audience members, it was clear to him that what they were seeing on stage resonated in their lives.

The first night there were very few blacks in the audience…
By the third night, at least half the audience was black.
I was in the lobby…and I said,
‘Why are you paying $4.80 to see Sidney Poitier here
when you can see him on film for 85 cents?’
She said, ‘The word’s going around in my neighborhood
that there’s something going on down here that concerns me.
And so I had to come down here
to find out what it was all about.’

– director Lloyd Richards5

The play ran for 530 performances.8

It was the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway.

Never before
in the entire history of the American theater,
has so much of the truth of black people’s lives
been
seen on the stage.
– James Baldwin 8

Though Lorraine Hansberry wrote a half dozen more plays,
she lived to see only one other full-length play produced:
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964).

Side note:
Several of her plays are available in the 1994 book:
Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays by Lorraine Hansberry
edited by Robert Nemiroff.


Act 4:  Remembered in Song

Though it is a thrilling and marvelous thing
to be merely young and gifted in such times,
it is doubly so, doubly dynamic—
to be young, gifted and black.

– Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry was only 34 years old
when she died of pancreatic cancer.

Her friend Nina Simone wrote a song in her memory
called To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
The title came from a speech that Hansberry had given the year before.

First Simone wrote the music and then she asked
Weldon Irving to write the lyrics.
He was her bandleader and a prolific songwriter.
She asked him to write something simple, something that would
“make black children all over the world
feel good about themselves, forever.”
7

Young, gifted and black
We must begin to tell our young
There’s a world waiting for you
This is a quest that’s just begun

When you feel really low
Yeah, there’s a great truth you should know
When you’re young, gifted and black
Your soul’s intact

– from ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’
music by Nina Simone, lyrics by Weldon Irvine

originally recorded and released by Nina Simone in 1969

Nina Simone
with the song she wrote for Lorraine Hansberry

.

Happy 90th Birthday
** Lorraine Hansberry
**

– born May 19, 1930
in Chicago, Illinois

.


Linger Awhile:

I’ve been thinking this week about Beneatha’s one concrete thing:

The idea that we all want to find the one thing
that we can do to make the world somehow better.

Your work is to discover your work,
and then with all your heart
to give yourself to it.

– Buddhist proverb

In A Raisin in the Sun, the character Beneatha
believes her work is to become a doctor.

Beneatha:
Listen, I’m going to be a doctor, I’m not worried
about who I’m going to marry yet—if I ever get married.

Mama
and Ruth:
If!

Mama:
Now, Bennie—

Beneatha:
Oh, I probably will…
but first I’m going to be a doctor…
and everybody around here better understand that!

– from A Raisin in the Sun
by
Lorraine Hansberry 9
Act 1, Scene 1

Walter believes his work is to think big, to buy his own business, and
to make more money.

Mama:
Son—how come you talk so much about money?


Walter: (with intense passion)
Because it is life, Mama.

Mama:
(quietly)
Oh—

(very quietly) So now it’s life. Money is life.
Once upon a time freedom used to be life—
now it’s money.
I guess the world really does change.

Walter:
No—it was always money, Mama.
We just didn’t know about it.

– from A Raisin in the Sun
by
Lorraine Hansberry 9
Act 1, Scene 2

What I wonder about
is when you find your work, and when you’re giving yourself to it—is that enough?

photo by Marilyn Hore

.

There is a long, long history of self-reflection and debate among artists
(with plenty of opinions and pressures from non-artists) asking:
Is art enough?

.

To create a painting,
or write a novel, or a record an album—to
concentrate solely on creating art
to the best of our ability—is that enough?
Or do we owe society something more?

.

Quite simply
and quietly as I know how to say it:
I am sick of poverty, lynching, stupid wars
and the universal maltreatment of my people
and [I am] obsessed with a rather
desperate desire for a new world.

Lorraine Hansberry
Letter to Dear Edythe
New York City, 1951

Lorraine Hansberry chose to do more.

She was an activist almost since birth, but along with her journalism and politics, she wanted to create art.
She was passionate about her writing, but she also wanted it to express her political and social beliefs.

As Hansberry was writing A Raisin in the Sun,
Robert Nemiroff remembers her saying:
‘I am going to write a social drama…that will be good art.

Clearly Lorraine Hansberry could do this.
As Vinson Cunningham wrote,1
Hansberry ‘walked a political-artistic tightrope.’

Art was not simply an
expression of her civil rights concerns
but a space where she could wage
racial and gender battles and find
resolutions that were more liberating than the law.

– Salamishah Tillet 3

But… how rare is that?
I can tell you this for certain:
Many a right-minded and badly-written song, novel, and play
has been attempted and forgotten over the millennia.

Write if you will: but write
about the world as it is and as you
think it ought to be…
But write to a point.
Work hard at it, care about it.
Write about our people: tell their story.
You have something glorious to draw on
begging for attention. Don’t pass it up…
Good luck to you. The nation needs your gifts.

– Lorraine Hansberry in a speech
titled “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”
She was speaking to teens who had won a
Readers Digest/United Negro College Fund essay contest.

May 1, 1964.

We needed Lorraine Hansberry around a lot longer—
for her gift, for her art, for her activism,
for showing the rest of us how it’s done.

What would she have been like at the age of 54?
What volumes of work would have been yielded
that grew and matured

based on the success of what she was doing?
And she never got a chance to go there.
— Harry Belafonte.


Here are two of my favorite quotes
from A Raisin in the Sun.

The first is actually in the stage directions.
It comes when we first see the character Lena Younger.
Her family calls her Mama.

Mama enters.
She is a woman in her early sixties,
full-bodied and strong.
She is one of those women of a certain grace and
beauty who wear it so unobtrusively
that is takes a while to notice.
Her dark-brown face is surrounded by the total
whiteness of her hair, and,
being a woman who has adjusted to many things in life
and overcome many more,
her face is full of strength.
She has, we can see, wit and faith of a kind
that keep her eyes lit and full of interest and expectancy.
She is, in a word, a beautiful woman.

– from A Raisin in the Sun
by
Lorraine Hansberry
stage directions, Act 1


In this second quote, we hear Lena speaking to her daughter, Beneatha.
This is in Act 3, as the play is building to the climax.
They are talking about Walter, Beneatha’s brother.
(He’s just left the room.)

Mama:
You feeling like you’re better than he is today? Yes?
What did you tell him a minute ago?
That he wasn’t a man?…You’ve written his epitaph too—
like the rest of the world?
Well, who gives you the privilege?
….Child, when do you think it the time to
love somebody the most? When they’ve
done good and made things easy for everybody?
…Because that isn’t the time at all. It’s when he’s
at his lowest and can’t believe in himself because the
world has whipped him so!
When you start measuring somebody,
measure him right, child, measure him right.
Make sure you’ve taken into account what

hills and valleys he’s come through
before he got to wherever he is.

– from A Raisin in the Sun
by
Lorraine Hansberry 9
Act 3

.


“Half Cup More”

Something I noticed while reading A Raisin in the Sun:
In every scene with the child Travis, his actions seem to to mirror and embody
what is happening among the adults.

Here are 4 examples of Travis as metaphor.


His Father’s Money

Travis:
We’re supposed to bring fifty cents to school.

Ruth:
Well, I don’t have fifty cents this morning.

a little while later…
Travis:
(to his father)
She won’t give me the fifty cents.

Walter:
Why not?


Ruth (simply, and with flavor):
Because we don’t have it.

Walter:
What do you tell the boy things
like that for? Here, son.

Travis:
Thanks, Daddy.

– from A Raisin in the Sun
by
Lorraine Hansberry 9
Act 1, Scene 1

Travis asks for money.

His mother is practical
and says no.
His father chides his wife then gives his son the money—
money he, Walter, actually needs later that day.

This foreshadows several things: a father’s generosity,
the family’s disagreements about money, and Walter’s insolvency.


Where Have You Been?

Travis goes out and stays out,
which was not what his mother wants him to do at night.

He gets punished for it.

Mama goes out and buys a house,
which was not what her son wants her to do with the insurance money.

Will the family be punished for it?

Walter:
Where did you go this afternoon?

Mama:

I went downtown to tend to some
business that I had to tend to.

Walter:

What kind of business?

Mama:

You know better than
to question me like a child.

– from A Raisin in the Sun
by
Lorraine Hansberry
Act 2, Scene 1


The Wrong Dream?

Walter:
Son, what do you want to be
when you grow up?

Travis:
A bus driver.

Walter:
(laughing a little)
A what?
Man, that ain’t nothing to want to be!

– from A Raisin in the Sun
by
Lorraine Hansberry
end of Act 2
(This is a scene between Walter and Travis
that is often omitted in productions)

Travis is told that what he wants is the wrong thing,
that he’s dreaming the wrong dream.
Compared to…

Walter, who wants to invest his father’s insurance money in a liquor store.
And Mama, who wants to buy a house, even though it’s in an all-white neighborhood.

Are they, too, dreaming the wrong dream?


Over-sized

Travis:
It’s a gardening hat! Like the ladies always have on
in the magazines when they work in their gardens.


Beneatha
(giggling fiercely):
Travis, we were trying to
make Mama into Mrs Miniver—not Scarlett O’Hara!


Mama:

What’s the matter with you all!
This here is a beautiful hat!
I always wanted one just like it!

– from A Raisin in the Sun
by
Lorraine Hansberry 9
Act 2, Scene 3

In a happy scene, the family gives Mama a housewarming gift.

As a surprise, Travis buys her a separate gift on his own.
The stage directions describe it as a ‘ludicrous oversized hat.’
The other adults think the hat is foolish and will make her look like she’s trying to be something she’s not.

Mama stands up for Travis’ right to make his own choices.
The hat is a metaphor for the house Mama bought in a neighborhood where they’re told—by some—that they don’t belong.

.


Take-Away Box

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

– Langston Hughes **

.


Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

You Can Read More…

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notes & footnotes
——————————

** The title of this poem is Harlem.
(It’s also sometimes called A Dream Deferred.)
Langston Hughes published it in 1951 as part of
his longer poem cycle Montage of a Dream Deferred
about life in Harlem.
Lorraine Hansberry used a line of this poem
for the title of her play A Raisin in the Sun.

photo credit:
The photo of Lorraine Hansberry, 1959
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,
Photographs and Prints Division,
The New York Public Library.
“Dramatist Lorraine Hansberry at the time of her play “A Raisin in the Sun”
opening in New Haven, Connecticut, prior to its run on Broadway, 1959.”

The New York Public Library Digital Collections.
http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/091e6d30-d5e2-0130-e7a4-58d385a7b928

1.
Lorraine Hansberry’s Roving Global Vision
by Vinson Cunningham
The New Yorker magazine
May 4, 2020
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/05/11/lorraine-hansberrys-roving-global-vision

2.
The History Behind Hansberry v. Lee,
20 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 481
(1987)
by Allen R. Kamp
John Marshall Law School
https://repository.jmls.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1283&context=facpubs

3.
For Lorraine Hansberry, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ Was Just the Start
by
Salamishah Tillet
The New Yorker magazine
Jan. 12, 2018
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/12/arts/television/lorraine-hansberry-sighted-eyes-feeling-heart.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer

4.
A New Biography of a Brilliant Playwright Who Died Too Young
by
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
The New York Times
Oct. 9, 2018
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/09/books/review/imani-perry-looking-for-lorraine-hansberry.html

5.
Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

PBS: American Masters
January 19, 2018

I highly recommend this video.
There is so much more to Hansberry’s story
than I’ve
gone into here. Her activism, her work,
her meeting with Bobby Kennedy, her FBI dossier,
her efforts to keep her sexuality private.

The video also includes many
excerpts from Lorraine Hansberry’s journal,
including:

May 19, 1963
Read Times,
sweared at Kennedy,
made speeches against him and the rest
of the white people.
Am not too depressed.
Other birthdays have been worse, I suppose.


Autumn 1963
Negroes are so angry,
and white people so confused and sensitive to criticism…
Do I remain a revolutionary?
…Am I prepared to give my body to the struggle
or even my comforts?
I think when I get my health back I shall go
into the South to find out
what kind of a revolutionary I am.

6.
Beyond Bandung: The Critical Nationalism of Lorraine Hansberry
by
Fanon Che Wilkins
Radical History Review
May 1, 2006

7.
Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone
by
Nadine Cohodas
2010

8.
Lloyd Richards, Theater Director and Cultivator of Playwrights, Is Dead at 87
by
Campbell Robertson
New York Times
July 1, 2006
https://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/01/theater/01richards.html?scp=1&sq=Lloyd+Richards&st=nyt

9.
Please note:

For these quotes, I changed the text into 21st century English.

As a playwright, Lorraine Hansberry of course wrote
for actors—to indicate the correct accent, vocabulary, and cadence
to use in their spoken dialog.

As I lifted these few quotes from Hansberry’s script,
to give my readers a small taste of this essential American play,
I took them out of their original medium to present them here
in this very different medium.

As a white blogger—and not a trained actor—I felt
it would be just as disrespectful to
attempt the appropriate historic/regional dialect in my
written representation as it‘d be if you were hearing
me read these quotes aloud.


Therefore, I made the minor adjustments that
would let the text read as contemporary English;
Acknowledging our need to leave it to skilled actors to
give us a real reading
of Hansberry’s
astounding dialog.

I hope each of you will read Hansberry’s play for yourselves.
(Be sure to find a copy printed after 1987, which is the restored edition.)
Even more, I hope that you’ll be able to see it in its true form:
on stage.

I’ve never gotten to see A Raisin in the Sun on stage
and I’m really hoping to someday.

STT-48

Please note:
Whenever you click on ‘Post Comment’ your comments always come to me first. Then I post them below.
If you’d rather they stay between us, just let me know.

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© Kelly J Hardesty 2022

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