‘Raisin in the Sun’ celebrates 60th anniversary

Hansberry attended UW-Madison for two years

On March 11, 1959, the groundbreaking play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” debuted at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York. It was the first Broadway play written by an African-American woman, Lorraine Hansberry. That play came from a place deep within her soul.

Hansberry was evoking her own harsh experience as part of a black family moving into an all-white Chicago neighborhood. She was raised in a culture of activism — her father pushed back against restrictive covenants that spawned segregated housing areas until a Supreme Court ruling led to an end to such practices.

Hansberry majored in art when she first enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, but her desire to speak out never wavered. A classmate remembered her as “the only girl I knew who could whip together a fresh picket sign with her own hands, at a moment’s notice, for any cause or occasion.” She thrived in her humanities classes but struggled with the sciences, and she left Madison for New York City after two years. She worked for a progressive African-American newspaper and contributed letters to a lesbian magazine, although, fearing a backlash, she signed them using only her initials.

Not content to be a lone voice in the fight for equality, Hansberry once said, “The acceptance of our present condition is the only form of extremism which discredits us before our children.”

Hansberry’s play is named for a line in a Langston Hughes poem: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” It sparked attention on opening night — and long after.

“Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage,” James Baldwin wrote.

“Raisin” reached broader audiences in 1961 when a film version starring Sidney Poitier hit theaters. It was produced twice for television, and it had two runs on Broadway.

Hansberry died of cancer at age 34. She is among the UW-Madison alumni highlighted in the more than 50 exhibits in the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Alumni Park, which opened Oct. 6, 2017. The park is located between Memorial Union and the Red Gym on the UW-Madison campus and is open year-round. For information and a virtual tour of the park, please visit alumnipark.com.