Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965) was an African American playwright and author of political speeches, letters, and essays. Her best known work, A Raisin in the Sun, was inspired by her family’s battle against racial segregation in Chicago.
Lorraine Hansberry was the youngest of four children of Carl Augustus Hansberry, a successful real estate broker, and Nannie Louise Perry. In 1938, her father bought a house in the Washington Park Subdivision of the South Side of Chicago, violating a restrictive covenant and incurring the wrath of many neighbors. The latter’s legal efforts to force the Hansberrys out culminated in 1940 with Hansberry v. Lee, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held the particular racially-restrictive covenant in the case to be contestable (but not inherently invalid).
Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison, but found college uninspiring and left in 1950 to pursue her career as a writer in New York City, where she attended The New School. She worked on the staff of the black newspaper Freedom under the auspices of Paul Robeson, and worked with W. E. B. DuBois, whose office was in the same building. A Raisin in the Sun was written at this time, and was a huge success. It was the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Aged 29, she became the youngest American playwright and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. While many of her other writings were published in her lifetime – essays, articles, and the text for the SNCC book The Movement, the only other play given a contemporary production was The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.
In 1961, Hansberry was set Vinnette Carroll as the director of the musical, Kicks and Co, after its try-out at Chicago’s McCormick Place. It was written by Oscar Brown, Jr. and featured an interracial cast including Lonnie Sattin, Nichelle Nichols, Vi Velasco, Al Freeman, Jr., Zabeth Wilde and Burgess Meredith in the title role of Mr. Kicks. A satire involving miscegenation, the $400,000 production was co-produced by her husband Robert Nemiroff; despite a warm reception in the Windy City, the show never made it to Broadway.
After a battle with pancreatic cancer she died on January 12, 1965, aged 34. According to James Baldwin, Hansberry was prescient about many of the increasingly troubling conditions in the world, and worked to remedy them with literature. Baldwin believed “it is not at all farfetched to suspect that what she saw contributed to the strain which killed her, for the effort to which Lorraine was dedicated is more than enough to kill a man.”  Hansberry’s funeral was held in Harlem on January 15, 1965. Paul Robeson gave her eulogy. The presiding reverend, Eugene Callender, recited messages from James Baldwin and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. which read: “Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.” She is buried at Asbury United Methodist Church Cemetery in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window ran for 101 performances on Broadway and closed the night she died. Her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff became the executor for several unfinished manuscripts. He added minor changes to complete the play Les Blancs, which Julius Lester termed her best work, and he adapted many of her writings into the play, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which was the longest-running Off Broadway play of the 1968-1969 season. It appeared in book form the following year under the title, To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. She left behind an unfinished novel and several other plays, including The Drinking Gourd and What Use Are Flowers?, with a range of content, from slavery to a post apocalyptic future.
Raisin, a musical based on A Raisin in the Sun, opened in New York in 1973, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical, with the book by Nemiroff, music by Judd Woldin, and lyrics by Robert Britten. A Raisin in the Sun was revived on Broadway in 2004 and received a Tony Award nomination for Best Revival of a Play. The cast included Sean “P Diddy” Combs as Walter Lee Younger Jr., Phylicia Rashad (Tony Award winner for Best Actress) and Audra McDonald (Tony Award winner for Best Featured Actress). It was produced for television in 2008 with the same cast, garnering two NAACP Image awards.
Hansberry contributed to the understanding of abortion, discrimination, and Africa. She joined the Daughters of Bilitis and contributed letters to their magazine, The Ladder, in 1957 that addressed feminism and homophobia.
In San Francisco, The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, which specializes in original stagings and revivals of African-American theatre, is named in her honor. Singer and pianist Nina Simone, who was a close friend of Hansberry, used the title of her unfinished play to write a civil rights-themed song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” together with Weldon Irvine. The single reached the top 10 of the R&B charts. A studio recording by Simone was released as a single and the first live recording on October 26, 1969 was captured on Black Gold (1970).
She is the first cousin of director and playwright Shauneille Perry, whose eldest child is named after her. Her grandniece is actress Taye Hansberry. Her cousin is the flautist, percussionist, and composer Aldridge Hansberry. Lincoln University‘s first-year female dormitory is named Lorraine Hansberry Hall. There is a school in the Bronx called Lorraine Hansberry Academy, and an elementary school in St. Albans, New York named after Hansberry as well. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Hansberry on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. She was the first African American to direct a play on Broadway