This is one of three pieces about new revivals of Lorraine Hansberry’s seldom-produced second play. You can check out the other two here.
A Raisin in the Sun cast a long shadow, even over its author, Lorraine Hansberry. The young Black woman’s hit play shook up the American theatre scene with its 1959 Broadway premiere, with its groundbreaking depiction of a Black family and a Black tragic hero. After that success, she continued to write plays, as well as essays that clarified her artistic and political investments. In “Stanley Gleason and the Lights That Need Not Die,” “Me Tink Me Hear Sounds in de Night,” “Dialogue With an Uncolored Egghead,” “Genet, Mailer, and the New Paternalism,” and “The Scars of the Ghetto,” she took on American democracy, theatre, and liberalism.
Her next play, though, confounded audiences when it premiered on Oct. 15, 1964 at the Longacre Theatre. Depicting a group of mostly white Greenwich Village leftists struggling with their lofty ideals and with each other, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window ran for just 101 performances and has only been sporadically revived over the years. In a fortuitous coincidence, two new high-profile productions on either coast will give audiences another look at this misunderstood classic. Opening Feb. 9, Intiman Theatre and the Williams Project’s co-production will constitute the play’s Seattle debut; and previews begin this week (in advance of a Feb. 23 opening) for a starry production at Brooklyn Academy of Music, in the first major New York revival of the play.
I sat down via Zoom with Anne Kauffman, director of the BAM production; Ryan Guzzo Purcell, the artistic director of the Williams Project and director of its production; and Joi Gresham, the director and a trustee of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, to discuss whether American theatre has finally made room for a version of Hansberry and her radical vision for the world that has heretofore been all but invisible to American audiences.
“The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window interrupts whatever legacy we think we have,” said Gresham. “It’s going to shake people up, because it’s not A Raisin in the Sun, and it’s not a play that fits into a romantic view of a writer’s evolution and development over time. So unless you have been prepared to think of Hansberry in a critical context in terms of the world and theatre and activism and what it means to be an artist, you’re going to be confused.”
Even for those of us who are deeply familiar with Hansberry’s work, Sign, Gresham explained, “wants to shake you up—to engage you.” Hansberry, she said, “wants you to commit.”
In 1964, it was difficult for audience members to connect with the work, which may be surprising, because at its heart, as Gresham said, the “play is about action, and the challenge for each of the characters to take action. The play is meant to disrupt our complacency, and our sense of liberal hoping that can be naïve, unexamined, assigned to others, and not rooted in the call upon us to take action as individuals, as well as our fear and anxiety about what’s going down—a kind of annihilating fear.”
How to act as the world falls to pieces was a pressing question in the mid-1960s, and it is certainly one for today. That may be why the Seattle production, said Purcell, is set in the present day. “We’re not changing any of the language,” he explained, “but our production takes place with a 2023 aesthetic. I think that the reason we need to hear this message now is, for me, the illusion of Obama’s post-racial America, and the idea that we were solving all the big American problems without really confronting them. I think of this play as a direct challenge to white liberals. The gulf between what white liberals are claiming to be and how they show up when the chips are down has been re-exposed as wide.”
Hansberry’s existentialist drama returns to both coasts on a wave of recent productions by such contemporaries as Alice Childress and Adrienne Kennedy, and at a time when audiences have become more used to Black playwrights (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Lynn Nottage, Dominique Morriseau, Suzan-Lori Parks, and others) taking on a broad spectrum of subjects. These new productions promise to add a chapter to Hansberry’s complicated legacy, and to a theatre history that may now more fully account for mid-century Black women playwrights and the multiple worlds they occupied.
Director Kauffman’s rendition is her second time around with the play; she directed a well regarded revival at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 2016. And though both of her stagings are clearly set in the early ’60s, she said, “The thing that’s so incredible about Lorraine is that the work is so alive, and it’s always going to be relevant. It’s about identity and American politics, and America as a country. It’s a prism, and as time moves forward, light reflects off of one facet of the prism more than others.”
For the BAM production, Kauffman said, she’s been “adding stuff back in from the 1965 and 1986 versions,” meaning drafts of the play to be found in Hansberry’s papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. “I’m a new-play director, and this feels like a new work. This will always feel like a new play because of those other drafts, and it’s ‘unfinished.’” There’s no shame in that status. As she said, “I’m unfinished, and I also think that the world is not finished.”
Though it departed in some ways from A Raisin in the Sun, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window revisited some of the themes that Hansberry took up in her earlier play about freedom, and about the way politics is rooted in day-to-day interactions. Here as earlier, she located the foundation for social change in the struggle among one’s intimates, partners, friends, and family. And “she just writes character better than anyone,” Purcell said. “There are so many playwrights that can either handle compassion for their characters or political and moral clarity. I think of her as one of the few that doesn’t give up the reality of human beings, but also doesn’t compromise on the effects of their failures. That ability to be political without reducing anyone’s humanity is one of her rare gifts.”
Kauffman likewise spoke of Hansberry’s “breadth and depth of observation, understanding inner turmoil, exterior turmoil, and such a radically precise vision of what this country is and who we are.” Sign helps us understand her “as a much more complex presence in the world, not just in theatre.”
Indeed, for Hansberry in 1964, American theatre and society needed to account for what she called an “insurgent mood” in the country. As she wrote three years earlier in “Dialogue with an Uncolored Egghead”: “Frankly, I think that Western intellectuals, as typified by Camus, are really most exercised by what they, not I, insist on thinking of as the ‘Death of the West.’ It is at the heart of all the anguished re-appraising, the despair itself; the renewed search for purpose and morality in life, and the almost mystical conclusions of strained and vague ‘affirmation.’ Why should you suppose black intellectuals be attracted to any of that at this moment in history?”
Attracted or not, in Sign she ventured into some of these debates about the Cold War, anticolonialism, and the impact of Western politics and culture. At bottom, though, the play’s key question, as Purcell put it, is “you have agency, so what are you doing with it? What are you standing for?”
By her untimely death in 1965, much of what Hansberry advocated for in artistic and freedom movements was unfinished. But her archive leaves a legacy, and that legacy is still unfolding. As Joi Gresham said of audiences leaving the theatre in either Seattle or Brooklyn: “I hope they leave thinking, Well, I thought I knew her. Instead she was larger than what I measured her to be.”
Soyica Diggs Colbert is a professor of African American Studies and Performing Arts at Georgetown University and the author of Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry. She is an associate director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., and her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Public Books, and American Theatre.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!