Lorraine Hansberry is famous for writing a classic piece of modern American drama – A Raisin in the Sun – but she wrote more radical plays too, and London’s National Theatre in London is reviving her unfinished, ambitious drama about African politics.
Her biographer says the writing of Hansberry, who died young in 1965, has plenty of relevance today – including the National’s Les Blancs (The Whites), about racial tensions in Africa just as the underpinnings of colonialism are starting to shift.
When A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore theatre in New York in March 1959 it boasted two firsts.
It was the first Broadway drama ever directed by an African American – Lloyd Richards – and it was the first written by a black woman.
That the playwright Hansberry was just 28 made the achievement all the more extraordinary.
The play ran more than a year. It made Hansberry well known and also gave Sidney Poitier his first starring role on Broadway.
Two years later it was filmed, again with Poitier as the son who loses a financial legacy after his father’s death.
But the play is deeply political: the family can recover their financial loss if they accept money not to move to a white neighbourhood of Chicago.
Six years after the debut of A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry died of cancer at the age of 34.
But she left behind several works, some incomplete. One of these is Les Blancs (The Whites), now playing at the Olivier Theatre and directed by the South African Yael Farber.
“A Raisin is now part of the classic canon of American drama. But Lorraine thought Les Blancs was her most important work,” Farber says.
“The work of completing it was done by her husband Robert Nemiroff. But Lorraine never saw the work performed, which is what every writer needs. So we’ve worked further on the dramaturgy for this production.”
Hansberry and Nemiroff had married in 1953 but later separated.
Les Blancs has at its centre the return from London of Tshembe Matoseh, played by Danny Sapani, to his home village in an unnamed African country.
The character is in debate with a visiting white American journalist, played by Elliot Cowan, and European residents such as Madame Neilsen (Sian Phillips).
Farber says playgoers who only know A Raisin in the Sun may be surprised.
“In Les Blancs she was working towards a radical new form as well as moving into more radical politics. It’s a detailed, dialogue-specific text but it’s also a long way from naturalism,” she says.
“My work as a director tends to be very physical so I hope we use that to bring all her ideas together.”
The production’s set, lighting design, and even the aromas drifting from the stage evoke Africa superbly.
‘Same questions, same problems’
In California, Margaret Wilkerson is currently completing the full-length biography which Hansberry enthusiasts have waited for.
Prof Wilkerson says writing the book has convinced her that the playwright is as relevant as ever.
‘I’m old enough to have lived through the 60s, and more and more I feel America is back in those years,” she said.
“When you woke up then you didn’t know what would have happened in terms of protestors and so many issues around race.
“That’s a lot of what Lorraine was writing about, even though Les Blancs is set in Africa. Now with the Black Lives Matter movement I sometimes feel we’re back asking the same questions and looking at the same social problems.”
Prof Wilkerson continued: “Lorraine died before she could contribute to black consciousness in the way she surely would have. I’ve been studying her for years but it’s only finally writing the new book I’ve realised how extraordinary she was at the beginning of the 1960s.
“It’s not just about the lives of African Americans: she was strongly concerned with changing the role of women as well.
“She was a cultural and political activist of a type which perhaps became more familiar later. The medium she used to communicate in her short life was basically writing. It would have been fascinating to see what might have followed if she hadn’t died in 1965.”
After the success of A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry was invited to speak on TV and radio, with journalists seeking her out.
“Organisations wanted her for speaking engagements and she was excited to get a lot of mail from the public,” said Prof Wilkerson. “What she wanted was to get her voice out and she had much more still to say.
“Her second play on Broadway isn’t remembered today – but The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window has mainly white characters. She was addressing the big audience, not a part of it.”
Les Blancs finally appeared briefly on Broadway in 1970, with James Earl Jones as Tshembe.
Prof Wilkerson is delighted to see it getting a new production in London. She acknowledges it may challenge audiences more than A Raisin in the Sun.
“Lorraine thought of theatre as a way to get people to encounter difficult ideas they were not inclined to think about,” she said. “She thought her job as a playwright was to make those ideas in a palatable form which engaged people’s interest.
“I worry sometimes when people say she was a political playwright. In America especially that can be a way of marginalising a writer, suggesting they’re just writing propaganda.
“Lorraine wrote about the human condition and about human society with all its failings. And that’s exactly what Shakespeare was writing about.”
Prof Wilkerson recalls that at the time Hansberry was writing, black America took little interest in the politics of Africa.
“As an African American, I know we had fights of our own in the USA. But Lorraine Hansberry thought big: she wanted audiences to think more about Africa’s situation. She always was a pioneer and, had she lived, the woman’s movement would have meant so much to her.”
Farber hopes her new production will awaken audiences to the scale of Hansberry’s talent and ambition.
“A Raisin in the Sun is essentially a living-room drama, for all its strengths. But Les Blancs is on the Greek scale. I don’t think anyone else has attempted to create on stage a whole narrative of what occurred on a continent in which various cultures jack-booted through, taking whatever they pleased.”
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