When A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959, the late Lorraine Hansberry became Broadway’s first black woman playwright—and, in short order, the chronicler of the black experience and struggle for a generation of Americans. Two months after the opening—after Hansberry had upstaged Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Archibald MacLeish by winning the New York Drama Critics Circle Award—she was interviewed by Studs Terkel for his “Almanac” radio show in her home town, Chicago. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Raisin‘s opening, excerpts from the interview are printed here for the first time.
Chicago, May 12, 1959
STUDS TERKEL: Someone comes up to you and says, “A Raisin in the Sun is not really a Negro play. Why, this could be about anybody!” What is your reaction? What do you say?
LORRAINE HANSBERRY: What people are trying to say is that this is not what they consider the traditional treatment of the Negro in the theatre. They’re trying to say that it isn’t a propaganda play, that it isn’t a protest play. They’re trying to say that the characters in our play transcend category. However, it is an unfortunate way to try and say it, because I believe that one of the soundest ideas in dramatic writing is that in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific. Universality, I think, emerges from truthful identity of what is.
In other words, I have told people that not only is this a Negro family, specifically and culturally, but it’s not even a New York family or a Southern Negro family—it is specifically Southside Chicago. To the extent we accept them and believe them as who they’re supposed to be, to that extent they can become everybody. So I would say it is definitely a Negro play before it is anything else.
TERKEL: You’ve spoken of Walter Lee Younger, the focal character of the play, as an affirmative hero in contrast to many of the heroes of theatre such as we see today.
HANSBERRY: Walter is affirmative because he refuses to give up. There are moments when he doubts himself and even retreats. But I suppose thematically what he represents is my own feeling that sooner or later we are going to have to make principled decisions in America about a lot of things. We have set up some very materialistic and overtly limited concepts of how the world should go. I think it’s conceivable to create a character today who decides that maybe his whole life is wrong, so that he ought to go do something else altogether and really make a complete reversal of things that we think are very acceptable. This is to me a certain kind of affirmation. It isn’t just rebellion, because rebellion rarely knows what it wants to do when it gets through rebelling.
There was another affirmative character to emerge in the theatre in the last few years, who interestingly enough chooses death, when he stands up against the Salem witch hunts in the 17th century—John Proctor in The Crucible. This is choosing death for a reason that’s going to substantiate life.
TERKEL: For life as a man rather than as a cipher.
TERKEL: Walter Lee’s mother is a remarkably strong character. In Negro families, the mother has always been a sort of pillar of strength, hasn’t she?
HANSBERRY: Yes. Historically this has something to do with the slave society, and was sustained by the sharecropper system in the South and on up into even urban Negro life in the North. There’s a relationship between Mother Younger in this play and Juno, the protagonist in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. No doubt there was a necessity among oppressed peoples, black or Irish or otherwise, for the mother to assume a certain kind of role. Obviously the most oppressed group of any oppressed group will be its women, who are twice oppressed. So I should imagine that they react accordingly: As oppression makes people more militant, women become twice militant, because they are twice oppressed. So that there is an assumption of leadership historically.
TERKEL: You have often mentioned your feelings for O’Casey.
HANSBERRY: Yes, I love O’Casey. He is the playwright of the 20th century who accepts and uses the instruments of Shakespeare, that is the human personality in its totality. I’ve always thought this should be a profoundly significant model, or point of departure, for Negro writer. O’Casey never fools you about the Irish, you see: he shows the Irish drunkard, the lrish braggart, the Irish liar, who is always talking about how he is going to fight the Revolution, but when the English show up he runs and hides under the bed and the young girl goes out to fight the Tommies. There is a genuine heroism which must naturally emerge when you tell the truth about people. This to me is the height of artistic perception and the most rewarding kind of thing that can happen in drama. If we believe people completely, as drunkards or braggarts or cowards, then we also believe them in their moments of heroic assertion.
TERKEL: In your work, you showed Walter Lee’s frailties throughout, and when he did emerge in that heroic moment, we believed.
HANSBERRY: That was the hope. That was the intent. What I do not believe in, to turn for a moment to technical dramaturgy, is naturalism. I think naturalism should die a quiet death. I do believe in realism.
TERKEL: What’s the difference?
HANSBERRY: There’s an enormous difference. Naturalism is its own limitation—it simply repeats what is. But realism demands the imposition of a point of view. The artist creating a realistic work shows not only what is but what is possible—which is part of reality, too. The point in O’Casey is the wonder of the nobility of people. It is this dimension of people’s humanity that he imposes on us. And he uses something which I can’t imitate because I’m not equipped to—poetic dialogue, which moves it into the sphere of great art.
TERKEL: But there is a great deal of poetry in Raisin in the Sun. A feeling that is larger than life. Isn’t that what theatre should be?
HANSBERRY: Always. Always. There used be be a ballet in this play. [Laughing.]
TERKEL: There was a ballet?
HANSBERRY: That’s right. The motifs of the characters were to have been done in modern dance. It didn’t work! But I think that imagination has no bounds in realism—you can do anything which is permissible in terms of the truth of the characters. That’s all you have to care about.
TERKEL: Is the play autobiographical?
HANSBERRY: No, it isn’t. I’ve tried to explain this to people. I come from an extremely comfortable background, materially speaking. And yet we live in a ghetto, you know, which automatically means intimacy with all classes and all kinds of experiences. It’s not any more difficult for me to know the people that I wrote about than it is for me to know members of my family. This is one of the things that the American experience has meant to Negroes. We are one people.
I guess at this moment the Negro middle class—the comfortable middle class—may be from five to six percent of our people, and they are atypical of the representative experience of Negroes in this country. Therefore, I have to believe that whatever we ultimately achieve, however we ultimately transform our lives, the changes will come from the kind of people that I chose to portray. They are more pertinent, more relevant, more significant—most important, more decisive—in our political history and our political future.
TERKEL: The very charming and lively little sister—is she slightly autobiographical?
HANSBERRY: Oh, she’s very autobiographical! [Laughing.] My sister, my brother would tell you that! The truth of the matter is that I enjoyed making fun of this girl who is myself eight years ago. I have great confidence about what she represents. She doesn’t have a word in the play that I don’t agree with still, today. I would say it differently today.
I’ve been interested in some of the criticisms of the play—there was one letter in The New York Times from a very sophisticated young man who said he regarded it as a soap opera. Which amused me. Soap opera implies melodrama, of course, and melodrama has a classical definition. If you can prove that there are no motivated crises in this play, I would be astonished. Or a “happy ending”! If he thinks that’s a happy ending, I invite him to come live in one of the communities where the Youngers are going! So I don’t think the play qualifies as melodrama; it is legitimate drama.
It’s very interesting to me that no one has picked out something that is a very genuine criticism of the play—that is that it lacks a central character in the true classical sense. There is a pivotal character…
TERKEL: In Walter Lee
TERKEL: But some will tell you Mrs. Younger.
HANSBERRY: That’s right. And some people are so enamored of the daughter that they’re not sure that she isn’t the most relevant in some way. This to me is a weakness of the play.
TERKEL: Is this really a weakness? I’m thinking of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing. There was no central character in this excellent play of a Jewish lower middle-class family.
HANSBERRY: Well, obviously, when you start breaking rules you may be doing it for a good reason. But in my view of drama, the great plays have always had a central character with whom we rise or fall no matter what, from the Greeks through Shakespeare through Ibsen.
TERKEL: May I ask vou about Asagai, the African suitor?
HANSBERRY: Mv favorite character.
TERKEL: He’s a remarkable figure. Who is he? What is his meaning in the play?
HANSBERRY: He represents two things. The first is the true intellectual. This is a young man who is so absolutely confident in his understanding and his perception of the world that he has no need for any of the facade of pseudo-intellectuality, for any of the pretense and the nonsense. He doesn’t have the time or interest—except for amusement—in useless passion, in useless promenading of ideas.
The other thing he represents is much more overt. I was aware that on the Broadway stage they had never seen an African who didn’t have his shoes hanging around his neck and a bone through his nose, or his ears, or something. [Laughing.] And I thought that just theatrically speaking, he would be a most refreshing character. In fact, this boy is a composite of many African students in the United States whom I have known. They have represented to me in life what this fellow represents in the play: the emergence of an articulate and deeply conscious colonial intelligentsia in the world. He also signifies a hangover of something that began in the ’30s, when the Negro intellectuals first discovered the African past and became very aware of it.
HANSBERRY: Yes, that was part of it in a different sense. But I mean particularly in poetry and the creative arts. I want to reclaim it. Not physically—I don’t mean I want to move there—but this great culture that has been lost may very well make decisive contributions to the development of the world in the next few years.
TERKEL: The New York Times recently quoted you, speaking of a certain irritation you felt in seeing plays about blacks written by people wholly removed from the situation. You said something about Carmen Jones…
HANSBERRY: I probably alluded to the whole concept of the Exotic. In Europe, you know, they think that the Gypsy is just about the most exotic creature to have walked across the earth—that’s because he’s isolated from the mainstream of European life. So, obviously, the natural parallel in American life is the Negro. [Laughing] Very exotic. So whenever it’s time to do something like a Bizet opera which involves the Gypsies of Spain, it’s translated, they think, very neatly, into a Negro piece. I just think this is sort of a bore by now.
TERKEL: The clichés are there.
HANSBERRY: I’m bored with clichés. I don’t think very many people realize how boring—aside from being nauseating—those stereotyped notions are. This is not said often enough. It’s not only a matter of works like Porgy and Bess—I’m talking about the DuBose Heyward book now, not the music, which is great American music in which the roots of our native opera are to be found someday. But the book is not only offensive, not only insulting because it’s a degrading way of looking at people, but it’s bad art because it doesn’t tell the truth! And fiction demands the truth. In other words, there is no excuse for a stereotype. I’m not talking socially or politically, I’m talking as an artist now.
TERKEL: Aesthetically, it’s bad.
HANSBERRY: Exactly. If a work of art is a lie because it just tells half a truth, then the artist should shudder for reasons other than the disapproval of the NAACP. And the responsible artist will.
TERKEL: Art must tell the truth.
HANSBERRY: I think so. It’s almost the only place where you can tell it.
TERKEL: Now that A Raisin in the Sun has been so well received, what about this little goddess, Success? What does it do to you?
HANSBERRY: It’s wonderful, and I’m enjoying it! I don’t have the right to be very personal about the reception to this play, though, because I think it transcends what I did, or what Sidney Poitier or Lloyd Richards or any of us connected with it did. I think it reflects at this particular moment in our country—as troubled and as depressed as I, for one, am about so much of it—it reflects a new mood. We went through 8 to 10 vears of misery under [Joseph] McCarthy and all that nonsense, and to the great credit of the American people they got rid of it. And they’re feeling like: Make new sounds! I’m glad I was here to make one.
TERKEL: Make new sounds! The best of jazzmen say that, too.
HANSBERRY: It’s a close relationship. I’ve often said that the glory of Langston Hughes was that he took the quality of the blues and put it into our poetry. And I think when the Negro dramatist can begin to approach that quality, he might almost get close to what O’Casey does in putting the Irish folksong into a play.
TERKEL: I think Lorraine Hansberry is on that road, certainly.
HANSBERRY: I spoke of how there’s a new affirmative political and social mood in our country having to do with the fact that people are finally aware that Negroes are tired, and it’s time to do something about it. But beyond that, in terms of the total picture, I’d like to see a parallel movement in the culture of our country. I see no reason in the world why the American theatre should be lined up on about six blocks on Broadway in New York City. I’d like to see a little agitation to get a national theatre and other art programs in this country so that kids all over the United States can go see Shakespeare without thinking it’s a bore. Or Eugene O’Neill. Or Lorraine Hansberry!
Studs Terkel is a distinguished journalist and social commentator based in Chicago. His book Working was adapted into a musical by composer Stephen Schwartz.
Following A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry wrote The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window and Les Blancs. She died of cancer in 1965 at age 34. A book of autobiographical writings, To Be Young, Gifted and Black was published posthumously and adapted for the stage by her literary executor and former husband Robert Nemiroff.
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