‘Looking for Lorraine’ Illuminates Life of Iconic Playwright Lorraine Hansberry

When Chicago native Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” premiered on Broadway in March 1959, Hansberry received “what one critic called a tremendous personal ovation when audience and cast called her to the stage for repeated curtain calls,” the Tribune reported at the time.

Hansberry was just 28 when she became the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. “A Raisin in the Sun,” which centers on one black American family living on the South Side of Chicago, was immediately hailed by The New York Times as having “vigor as well as veracity,” further arguing that it was “likely to destroy the complacency of anyone who sees it.”

Imani Perry, a Philadelphia resident and Princeton University’s Hughes-Rogers professor of African-American studies, considers Hansberry her muse. As a child who spent her summers in Chicago, Perry was exposed to the playwright’s work at a young age; as Perry grew, so did her admiration of Hansberry — which is why, Perry said, she wrote her new book, “Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry.”

“She’s really interesting because she’s such a singular figure: the most widely read black woman playwright in American history, the most widely produced black woman playwright in American history,” Perry said. “She lived a short life, but was extraordinarily accomplished and there’s relatively little that has been written about her in comparison to her contemporaries and closest friends, like James Baldwin and Nina Simone.

“She was the product of (a) variety of communities — black Chicago, the Greenwich Village crowd — she’s this person who really pulled together so many identities and experiences, and I think through her we can understand (not only) so much about 20th-century American history, but also … the pressing social issues of today.”

The Tribune talked with Perry on the eve of her book’s release about the complexity of Hansberry’s creative scope, Chicago’s role as an incubator for her talent, and what Hansberry would think of our current political climate. Hansberry, who died at 34 in 1965 of pancreatic cancer, wrote about policing and race, using her platform to challenge inequality and racism. Perry quotes Hansberry:

“I think the daily press lulls the white community falsely in dismissing the rising temper of the ghetto and what will surely come of it. The nation presumes upon the citizenship of the Negro but is oblivious to the fact that it must confer citizenship before it can expect reciprocity. Until twenty million black people are completely interwoven into the fabric of our society, you see, they are under no obligation to behave as if they were. What I am saying is that whether we like the word or not, the condition of our people dictates what can only be called revolutionary attitudes.”

Perry said she hopes her book will be an invitation to delve into Hansberry’s life further.

“How many biographies do we have about Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass or James Baldwin? She deserves a lot of work,” Perry said. “We all learn about the Harlem Renaissance in school, but we don’t tend to learn about the Chicago Renaissance, and I think Lorraine Hansberry can be a vehicle for us to begin to really insist that we put Chicago in its proper place in the history of black life.”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: Do you think Hansberry would be saddened by the current political and racial climate?

A: I think she would be outraged at the moment we’re in. I think she would be incredibly outspoken, she would be someone who would advocate being in the street, in the courthouse, in the voting booth, in every possible way in this moment. I don’t think she would necessarily think that we would be further along; she understood how trenchant inequality and racism are in our society. Being from Chicago was so important for her, in part, because it was the location of so much of both the dream and its deferral for black Americans — this primary migration destination, this place full of hope where dreams are being snatched away. I think it gave her insight into really how difficult the struggle was.

Q: What was the most remarkable thing you found out about her?

A: I will say the thing that most surprised me was how prolific she was. She just produced so much work in a relatively short life and she was so incredibly well-read. She wasn’t just a genius as a playwright, she was a hardcore intellectual. I didn’t really have a sense of that. The other piece was being in her papers and letters; seeing her vulnerability and her places of insecurity was profound. We think of these figures so often — these great figures in history — in sort of iconic ways and she was very real, very vulnerable. She had a lot of self-doubt. And I was so moved by that, because it really is an example of we all have to go through that in order to do the work that we’re called to do in this life.

Q: Who’s picking up the mantle that Hansberry left behind?

A: I don’t know if I could identify a singular person, but I do think there are organizations and individuals who are asking the kinds of questions that she asked. I think of a playwright like Lynn Nottage, a novelist like Jesmyn Ward, an activist like Charlene Carruthers of the Black Youth Project. They’re people who I think are really sort of descendants of her, intellectually and politically and artistically.

Q: Do you think that if her family had opted to go to New York instead of Chicago, she would be a different person?

A: It’s hard to imagine her having become precisely who she was, had she come of age in another place. If for no other reason, to come of age on the South Side at the period in which she did, the fact that her family was affluent and highly educated, did not remove her from the larger black community. She was in the middle of it; she felt deeply connected to black poor and working-class people. And she was also impacted by the very particular and ugly brand of exclusion and racism that existed in Chicago. One thing that is really interesting to me, in light of the present moment, is she talked about policing and racism a lot and her anger over that — which certainly comes from her experience seeing how police officers failed to protect black people and often targeted and harassed black people.

Q: What else should we know about Hansberry?

A: I think it’s really important to say that Hansberry is someone who didn’t finish college and struggled academically. James Baldwin (struggled) similarly. I think it is important to tell young people that academic success is wonderful, but it’s not the only way to cultivate your mind or to become excellent and those types of models. We need to have them and to acknowledge them in that way, because we have kids who think that they are stupid because they struggle in school. There are these models, geniuses, for whom that institution didn’t necessarily work, but that didn’t get in their way of their intellectual development.

Q: What are you hoping readers of the book take away from it?

A: I hope it has an impact on people. At this moment, she’s so young. She gets this huge success, and for many people, the impulse might be to protect that, but instead she uses her platform to be bold and challenging. She takes the access and fame she has and instead of using it to protect her work, she uses it to fight on behalf of black people, of poor people, of oppressed people all over the world. I hope that we’re all inspired by that, to be willing to (take a) risk for the sake of what’s right and good.

(Article written by Darcel Rockett)