In many respects, Lorraine Hansberry could be called a one-hit wonder. But that hit, A Raisin in the Sun, is an iconic masterwork that continues to speak to audiences more than 60 years after its premiere. Hansberry was only 29 when she seemingly came out of nowhere to become the first Black female playwright produced on Broadway. Six years later, she died tragically young, precluding further literary greatness. Charles J. Shields, best known as a biographer of Harper Lee, delves into the short yet significant life of this great writer in Lorraine Hansberry, an evenhanded and informative study that reveals truths about a woman whose complexities were largely erased from the public portrait she and her heirs fashioned.
Shields has not written a glitzy showbiz biography that takes readers behind the scenes of the theater world. In fact, the triumph of A Raisin in the Sun only takes up a couple of chapters near the end of the book, and Hansberry and the team that mounted the show—including her cheerleader husband, Bob Nemiroff—were Broadway outsiders. Instead, the story Shields tells is of a smart, reserved and gifted young woman from the Black upper class who applied her intelligence, and sometimes anger, to a quest for her authentic personal identity in midcentury America.
Hers was a life of confounding contradictions. The Hansberry family wealth was amassed by Lorraine’s father, a Chicago real estate tycoon who fought racial covenants all the way up to the Supreme Court yet was himself a slumlord who preyed on Black tenants. His daughter’s rebellion manifested in part through her embrace of communist ideals (which triggered FBI surveillance), yet she did not refuse the monthly profit checks she received from the family business. Married to a Jewish man, Hansberry eventually came to terms with her lesbianism but stayed married. While she was at the center of the Black cultural dialogue in her time—counting Paul Robeson, James Baldwin and Alice Childress among her friends and influences—she maintained that her most famous play at its heart was about class rather than race.
To paint the full landscape of the time and place that Hansberry inhabited, Shields often detours from the writer’s immediate story to place the many supporting players in context. These side trips are generally informative, although some seem extraneous and interrupt the flow of the main narrative. Shields raises interesting questions about others’ contributions to Hansberry’s work—particularly those of original A Raisin in the Sun director Lloyd Richards, and of Hansberry’s husband, who worked doggedly to shape her posthumous image and keep her literary legacy alive—but the answers remain largely unexplored. Overall, this equitable portrait of Hansberry is thoughtful and deftly rendered, a welcome corrective for the carefully curated and sanitized version that has long constituted fans’ received wisdom.