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Playwright Lorraine Hansberry. (Photo: Courtesy of the Goodman Theatre)

Lilly Awards Launches Lorraine Hansberry Initiative

The initiative will honor the pioneering playwright’s legacy with a touring statue and support for the work of multiple female/non-binary playwrights of color.

NEW YORK CITY: The Lilly Awards Foundation has announced the creation of the Lorraine Hansberry Initiative, which aims to honor the great American playwright and Civil Rights leader’s legacy while investing in those following in her footsteps.

In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry became the first Black female playwright on Broadway with her play A Raisin in the Sun. It continues to be one of the most produced plays in the world, but Hansberry’s contribution to the world was far greater than that single play. Her entire body of work as an artist, journalist, and Civil Rights leader has proven as relevant today as it was during her short lifetime, and deserves recognization as such. 

Over 60 years after her pioneering example, female playwrights of color remain the most proportionally underrepresented demographic on American stages. Despite making up 20 percent of the population, holding 20 percent of the undergraduate degrees in English literature and in the performing arts, and being chosen by their peers for over 20 percent of the spots in national playwriting organizations, prior to the unusual programming seasons that followed the murder of George Floyd, they accounted for under 10 percent of professional productions.

“One can draw a straight line from the issue of real estate and racial discrimination that Hansberry pointed to so clearly in A Raisin in the Sun,” said Julia Jordan, the Lillys’ executive director, in a statement, “to the generational wealth gap that is preventing women of color, specifically Black women, from following in her footsteps today.”

The Hansberry initiative includes a unique scholarship to ensure that the next generation is able to follow in Hansberry’s footsteps. Unlike existing university scholarships, this singular grant will be primarily intended to cover the living expenses of three female and/or non-binary dramatic writers of color entering graduate school, with two additional recipients added each year. Each recipient will receive $25,000 for each year of their education, ensuring that they have protected time to write, work with collaborators, and benefit from the guidance of professional mentors in their respective fields. They will go on to create for the stage, television, and film, and their work will reach millions.

“We know that graduate school is the primary gateway to a career as a dramatic writer,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage in a statement. “In my 20 years of teaching at the graduate level, I have had only four Black female students. If we want theatre to tell the full story of humanity, we need to nurture the full breadth of talent.”

Through this initiative, the foundation will keep the current national conversation about race, justice, and economic equality going by honoring Lorraine Hansberry. The initiative will add to the growing movement to honor women and people of color with physical monuments, and aims to alleviate the financial inequality that discourages women and non-binary playwrights of color from pursuing graduate degrees in her chosen art form.

The Initiative also includes a statue of Hansberry that will tour the nation in 2022-23 to raise public awareness of her work and teachings. Created by the renowned sculptor Alison Saar, the statue is titled To Sit Awhile, and features the figure of Hansberry surrounded by five bronze chairs, each representing a different aspect of her life and work. The life-size chairs are an invitation to the public to do just that: sit with her and think.

Maquette of To Sit Awhile by Alison Saar.

The statue will be unveiled in a ceremony in Times Square on June 9, which will feature performances as well as remarks from playwright Lynn Nottage and Lorraine’s older sister, Mamie Hansberry. The women and writers of color who have had their work grace Broadway this historic season will be invited to join Mamie Hansberry on stage. This will be followed by a showcase of student works from Speak Up, Act Out: Celebrating Student Voices at the New Victory Theater. The project, a collaboration between New Victory Theater, the Lillys, and 24 Hour Plays, will showcase monologues and short works inspired by Hansberry from NYC middle school students and performed and directed by professional artists, including Quincy Tyler Bernstein, Kate Whoriskey, Russell Jones, Jessica Hecht, April Mathis, Shariffa Ali, and Seret Scott.

The statue’s tour will include three installations in New York City, followed by a national tour of major cities and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In each city, the Initiative will work with local theatres and social justice organizations to showcase the work of contemporary writers of color concurrent with the sculpture’s placement.

The full NYC tour itinerary is as follows: Times Square (June 9- 12), the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (June 13-18), and Brooklyn Bridge Park (June 23-29). Additional supporting NYC events will coincide with the tour. The Museum of the City of New York will present a panel, titled The Playwright as Activist, on June 13 as part of their Freedom Week programming, which will feature a conversation among playwrights Lynn Nottage, Lisa Kron, and Erika Dickerson-Despenza. The Drama Book Shop will dedicate their display space for the month of June to works by and about Hansberry and contemporary writers of color.

The entire Lorraine Hansberry Initiative is budgeted at $3,500,000. To date, $2,200,000 has been raised. To make a donation to support this important work, please visit the Lorraine Hansberry Initiative.

The Lilly Awards Foundation is nonprofit whose mission is to celebrate the work of women in the theater and promote gender parity at all levels of theatrical production. Founded in 2010, the nonprofit is named for Lillian Hellman, a pioneering American playwright. The annual Lilly Awards recognize extraordinary female writers, composers, directors, designers, producers, and advocates. As of 2019, the foundation had a budget of approximately $261,853.

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