Saturday, January 13, 2018

Beyond Raisin: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

playwright Lorraine Hansberry

Any attempt to assess the entirety of Lorraine Hansberry’s career quickly runs into the inescapable fact of her untimely death. Since she was only 34 when she died, Hansberry’s entire legacy has become identified with her first play, A Raisin in the Sun. Although the play will always retain a firm place in the American theatrical canon, not least because it was the first on Broadway to be written by an African-American woman as well as the first to be staged by an African-American director, that status has also made it a target for a range of criticism, from Pauline Kael’s dismissal of its filmed version as proof “that a Negro family can be as dreary as a white family” to attacks on its perceived political and social complacency by George C. Wolfe, who mercilessly mocked it in a section of his play The Colored Museum.

A new documentary, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, attempts to reorient our understanding of Hansberry by placing the success of Raisin in the context of Hansberry’s overall life and career. Written and directed by Tracy Heather Strain, the film airs on PBS on January 19. (I should disclose that I viewed the film as preparation for an interview that I conducted with Strain for my podcast on theatre history.)

Featuring narration by LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Anika Noni Rose as the voice of Hansberry, Strain’s film depicts Hansberry as a radical in both political and sexual matters. Although she presented an image of poise and respectability in the seemingly endless press appearances that were required to promote Raisin on stage and film, her private persona was much less suited to the times. She was a committed Communist, and by the time that Raisin premiered on Broadway she had already amicably separated from her husband, due to her realization that she was a lesbian. Strain has stated that her goal in drawing out these strands of Hansberry’s biography was to challenge the rather anodyne image of her that has become the standard view of the playwright, and in that regard the documentary succeeds. Instead, we see Hansberry as a woman living under the strain of having to represent black uplift in a media landscape dominated by white people while cautiously and quietly living out an identity that no one, regardless of skin color, was supposed to acknowledge in the late 1950s and early 60s.

Lorraine Hansberry (front row, 3R) at a party in honor of Broadway debut of A Raisin in the Sun (Gordon Parks/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)  

It’s impossible for the film to escape the gravitational pull of Raisin, given its disproportionate importance as the only entirely finished play of Hansberry’s curtailed career, but it does manage to cast her intentions for the drama in a different light. As Kael and Wolfe’s aforementioned criticisms indicate, it’s often assailed for being too safe, focusing on the middle-class aspirations of a black family in Chicago and operating in a realist mode that recapitulates some of the less inspiring devices of old-fashioned rent-day melodramas and Arthur Miller at his most unbearably wholesome. However, placing the play in the context of Hansberry’s radical politics helps to reframe it, at least in terms of understanding Hansberry’s aim instead of the end result. Amiri Baraka, a onetime critic of the play (who had changed his name from Leroi Jones in the years after its premiere), later came to see it as “political agitation,” an attempt to deal with “issues of democratic rights and equality . . . not as political abstractions, but as they are lived.” Such statements suggest that, if nothing else, we should perhaps shift our point of comparison from Miller’s work to another of Hansberry’s contemporaries, Clifford Odets, and to see the work as attempting to operate in the exhortatory mode of a work like Awake and Sing!

Strain draws on a range of documents for the film, from the court case that Hansberry’s father fought against residential segregation in Chicago to the letters that she wrote to The Ladder, the first major lesbian publication in the United States. In addition, Strain has marshaled an impressive array of talking heads, from predictably essential figures such as Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee (who both appeared in the 1961 film of Raisin) to more surprising individuals such as Edie Windsor, the late activist who knew Hansberry and was the plaintiff in the landmark legal decision overturning the ban on same-sex marriage in the United States. (The presence of Dee, Windsor, and Baraka has at times an unintentionally chilling effect – it’s jarring to see these now-deceased individuals as living, breathing presences onscreen.) The overall result is a look at Hansberry that, while it might not entirely change your perspective on her most famous work, will at least shift it.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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