If connecting with different kinds of people in very different ways makes a writer universal, then it's a status achieved by Lorraine Hansberry. Her stories are being told again in what amounts to an unplanned mini-revival at theaters in Long Beach and Hollywood.
For a political firebrand like Amiri Baraka, the black radical poet and playwright (now perhaps best known for verses about the Sept. 11 attacks that have been decried as anti-Semitic), Hansberry's landmark 1959 drama, "A Raisin in the Sun," was all about racial struggle.
"For many of us, it was -- and remains -- the quintessential civil rights play ... [capturing] the essence of black will to defeat segregation, discrimination and oppression," Baraka wrote in the Washington Post on the occasion of a 1986 revival.
But Shashin Desai knew almost nothing about civil rights and the struggles of black Americans when he sat in a Manhattan theater in 1960 watching "A Raisin in the Sun." He was 21 and had recently arrived from India with the dream of making a life in the theater. What he saw on the stage that day never left him: the struggle of another young man trying to come into his own by making a radical departure from family tradition.
In Hansberry's play, Walter Lee Younger bets his manhood and his future on a $10,000 investment in a liquor store, the clearest way he can see to become his own master and lift his family out of the cramped Chicago apartment where three generations of Youngers live uneasily. His mother, Lena, a long-suffering woman of vast moral authority, can't abide the idea of profiting from vice.
Desai's father, a wealthy Bombay businessman, could not fathom the intensity of his son's dream, could not imagine playacting as any kind of life. Desai saw in Walter a manifestation of himself.
For Eileen Mack Knight, it was the pure eloquence and embracing humanity of Hansberry's writing that hit home when she first read "A Raisin in the Sun" during the 1960s. "I loved the fact that I was listening to [another] African American woman's voice, but there was more than that. It was what she was saying, how she was seeing human beings."
"To Be Young, Gifted and Black," which Knight is directing at the Fountain Theatre, touches on episodes from the writer's early life, then carries chronologically through her adulthood. First produced in 1969, it includes scenes from "A Raisin in the Sun" and "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window," a 1964 drama about a white Greenwich Village intellectual that was the only other Hansberry work produced during her lifetime. It also includes glimpses of other plays and dramatized passages from Hansberry's speeches and journals.
The spark for "Raisin" came from Hansberry's childhood experience: When she was 8, her father, Carl, an affluent Chicago real estate investor, moved the family into an all-white neighborhood near the University of Chicago. At one point, a mob tried to drive the family away with bricks and epithets. Ultimately, according to Stephen A. Carter's 1991 study, "Hansberry's Drama," the family was evicted because the neighborhood was governed by restrictive real estate covenants prohibiting black ownership. Hansberry's father took his battle to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1940 ruled that such covenants were illegal.
Desai and his wife, caryn desai, who together run International City Theatre in Long Beach, are co-directing "Raisin," the musical adaptation of "A Raisin in the Sun" that features songs by Judd Woldin and Robert Brittan and that won a best-musical Tony Award in 1974. Though it enjoyed a successful initial run, it rarely has been performed since.
Hansberry's husband, Robert Nemiroff, adapted "Raisin" and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" from her original writings after she died in 1965 of stomach cancer at age 34.
"Raisin" was never an easy sell, says Donald McKayle, the original production's director and choreographer. It took four years to find a producer, he recalls -- and even then it was the nonprofit Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., rather than a Broadway backer, that took the chance. "It just wasn't [commercial producers'] idea of a musical. Why would anyone want to come see a musical about a poor, black family in a ghetto?"
McKayle remembers Nemiroff, his friend since they were both politically active New York City teenagers, as an impassioned defender and promoter of his wife's legacy. "He was always absolutely bedazzled by her work, and he spent the rest of his life making sure that Lorraine's life and work were constantly in the forefront."
But by the time of Nemiroff's death in 1991, Hansberry's works other than "A Raisin in the Sun" were largely forgotten.