Bughouse Square Podcast with Eve Ewing has launched, check out the first episode and subscribe now! Read the Story

00 / 00

Lorraine Hansberry discusses her play "A Raisin in the Sun"

BROADCAST: 1971 | DURATION: 00:53:04

Synopsis

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry discusses her play "A Raisin in the Sun" and theater in general; last 10 minutes is a reading of "Chicago: South Side Summers" from "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black."

Transcript

Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.

OK

Studs Terkel We're seated in the apartment of a Mrs. Hansberry. I believe this is the apartment of the mother or the sister of Lorraine Hansberry, whom we can rightfully describe as a distinguished young American playwright. This may sound like a strange thing to say. An artist has written one play and we call her a distinguished American playwright. But it isn't one man's opinion. The winner of the Drama Critics' Circle award which in itself may be unprecedented. I'm not sure, we'll ask Miss Hansberry about this. Lorraine Hansberry, originally of Chicago.

Lorraine Hansberry Very much so.

Studs Terkel Back home for a week or so visiting your family.

Lorraine Hansberry Mmm-hmm. Until Sunday.

Studs Terkel If we could sort of make this a rambling, a rambling kind of conversation and dig as much as we can out of you. Your thoughts, how you came to write it, and your feelings about the play, and theater generally. This afternoon you gave what everybody there felt was an inspiring--not a speech--an inspiring piece of conversation at Roosevelt University about drama, generally. And if we can touch on that it'd go a long way fine. I su--Lorraine? May I?

Lorraine Hansberry Sure.

Studs Terkel A question--

Lorraine Hansberry I'm going to call you Studs.

Studs Terkel A question is often, I'm sure, is asked you many times. You may be tired of it. Someone comes up to you and says, "This is not really a Negro play, 'A Raisin in the Sun'". I'm sure you've been told this many--what's your reaction? They say, This is a play about anybody. Now what do you say?

Lorraine Hansberry That's an excellent question because invariably this has been the point of reference. People are trying--I know what they're trying to say. What they're trying to say, and mistakenly as a matter of fact, which I'll speak about, what they're trying to say is that this is not what they consider the traditional treatment of the Negro in the theater. They're trying to say that it isn't a propaganda play. That it isn't a protest play--

Studs Terkel No message play.

Lorraine Hansberry And that it isn't something that hits you over the head, and the other remarks, which have become cliches themselves, as a matter of fact, in discussing this kind of material. So what they're trying to say is something very good. They're trying to say that they believe that the characters in our play transcend category. However, it's an unfortunate way to try and do it because I believe that one of the most sound ideas in dramatic variety is that in order to create the universal you must pay very great attention to the specific. In other words, I've told people that not only is this a Negro family, specifically and definitely culturally, but it's not even a New York family or a Southern Negro family. It is specifically South Side Chicago. That kind of care, that kind of attention to the detail of reference and so forth. In other words, I think people will, to the extent they accept them and believe them as who they're supposed to be, to that extent they can become everybody. So I was--it's definitely a Negro play before it's anything else.

Studs Terkel The universality itself is italicized when you say something specific about a specific human being or a group of human beings as you did here.

Lorraine Hansberry Universality, I think, emerges from truthful identity of what is.

Studs Terkel Something you said as you were breaking down this cliche, this well-meant, this well-meant--

Lorraine Hansberry Yes.

Studs Terkel Point that these are well-rounded people they meant could be anybody. When you say, when people say that, forget that--you wrote this play. You wrote this play for a certain reason, too.

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. Yes.

Studs Terkel You wrote--Not a certain reason, [necessarily?]--a certain need to write this play. How did you come about? This is a rather--

Lorraine Hansberry Before I say that, though, I just want to say the other part that I said I would refer to, which is that I don't know what everybody is talking about when they talk about drama in American theater that has been hitting them over the head on the Negro question. They keep alluding to some mysterious, a body of material which allegedly did this. I, for one, can't recall that we have had anything approaching a great number of protest plays or so-called social plays about Negroes. And, as a matter of fact, the last play on Broadway that was a Negro play dealt with a boy coming into adolescence. In other words, it seems to me--

Studs Terkel "Take a Giant Step"?

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. You know, where the Negro question, as such, was not the paramount issue at all. It seems to me there's a preoccupation and a sense of guilt for something that some elements are so afraid of what they feel that they're already anticipating something that hasn't been true.

Studs Terkel This is a very interesting comment [unintelligible] here.

Lorraine Hansberry We need a few protest plays as a matter of fact.

Studs Terkel But the last protest play, as such, with a capital P, I believe, was something called "Stevedore" which was years and years ago as I remember.

Lorraine Hansberry The 30s?

Studs Terkel One of the very few, really. "Take a Giant Step". Now, I suppose, somebody might have said Louis Peterson's play this could be. Or could they have said it about that as they did of your play?

Lorraine Hansberry And also the one play of which this description is true, as a matter of fact, was "Deep Are the Roots", which happens to have been quite a good play. It wasn't a sloppy play. I would treat all dramatic material differently, myself, but that's irrelevant. In terms of ordinary Broadway fare it was as good as any other play. What they're sensitive about is the material that's used in it, obviously.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of Walter Lee Younger. You call him the focal character, the protagonist of the play, Walter Lee Younger. And for those, the great many listeners who were not fortunate to hear you this afternoon at Roosevelt, you spoke of Walter Lee Younger as an affirmative hero in contrast to many of the heroes of theater such as we see today of very excellent plays. Would you mind explaining that a bit?

Lorraine Hansberry Well, as I went on at length about it this afternoon because, you know, I wanted to develop it in terms of what I think are some general patterns in contemporary drama but specifically, in terms of the play itself, Walter is affirmative because he refuses to give up. There are moments when he doubts, you know, himself and even retreats and goes back into something that obviously, to the extent that the point of view of the artist, the author, is clear in this play that I don't agree with, and things that he decides to do. But in the end--

Studs Terkel You mean investing the dough, you mean?

Lorraine Hansberry Well, beyond that point when he says not only was he cheated but the solution is to go out and cheat everybody else.

Studs Terkel Oh, yeah. That's right.

Lorraine Hansberry Because this is the way life is. What he means, of course, is that this is the way the life around him is. But I suppose, thematically, what he represents is my own feeling that sooner or later we're going to have to make principled decisions in America about a lot of things. And any number of these decisions are going to seem contrary to things that we think we want. In other words, we've set up some very materialistic and overtly--

Studs Terkel What we think solid values?

Lorraine Hansberry Yes, overtly limited concepts of how the world should go. Sooner or later I think we're going to have to decide on them. In other words, I think it's just as conceivable to create a character today who decides maybe that his whole life is wrong so that he ought to go do something else altogether. And really make a completely, a complete reversal of things that we think are very acceptable. This to me is a certain kind of affirmation. It isn't just rebellion because rebellion rarely knows what, you know, what it wants to do when it gets through rebelling.

Studs Terkel Even if this affirmation against what you--

Lorraine Hansberry It's a little revolutionary.

Studs Terkel No. What may be considered accepted values, generally. Conventional values, let's say, within a framework.

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. Yes.

Studs Terkel [Which is what?] Walter Lee does.

Lorraine Hansberry Yes.

Studs Terkel As you say, nothing is solved, nothing completely solved in the play as they move to a new neighborhood--

Lorraine Hansberry Right.

Studs Terkel Or a new home.

Lorraine Hansberry You know, it would be just as well, though, to say that I chose Willy Loman. I chose Willy Loman because I was making a point. But there was another affirmative character to emerge in the last eight years who, interestingly enough, also chose death. And who was affirmative rather than negative. And this was John Proctor and "The Crucible".

Studs Terkel In "The Crucible".

Lorraine Hansberry In other words, the point becomes what did he choose death for? He chose death for life in this case, you know. This is the story that involves a man who stands up against the Salem witch hunts in the 17th century. This is choosing death for a reason that's going to substantiate life [or to make it bigger?]--

Studs Terkel For [life?] as a man rather than as a cipher.

Lorraine Hansberry Exactly.

Studs Terkel John Proctor! I hadn't thought about the connect--this is remarkable, because Walter Lee Younger may have physical trouble as he leaves, you see. As John Proctor--

Lorraine Hansberry He probably will!

Studs Terkel Did, yeah. But Walter Lee Younger--

Lorraine Hansberry If he's moving anywhere in Chicago!

Studs Terkel Found himself as a man, as John Proctor. I hadn't thought about this. I think of, now, Mrs. Younger--that is, Mrs. Big Walter Younger, Walter Lee's mother. Here is a remarkably strong, per--a question I want to ask--you've probably been asked this many times--in many cultures the mother, the woman, is very strong, you know?

Lorraine Hansberry Mmm-hmm.

Studs Terkel Now, Steinbeck used it with Mrs. Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath".

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. Yes. Someone wrote a beautiful analogy--

Studs Terkel Now, in Negro families, through the years the mother has always been a sort of pillar of strength, hasn't she?

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. Yes. Those of us who are to any degree students of Negro History think this has something to do with slave society, of course, where she was allowed, to a certain degree, of, not ascendancy, but of, at least control of her family, whereas the male was relegated to absolutely nothing at all. And this has probably been sustained by the sharecropper system in the South and on up into, even, urban Negro life in the North. At least that's the theory. I think it's a mistake to get it confused with Freudian concepts of matriarchal dominance and Philip Wylie's Momism and all that business. It's not the same thing. Not that there aren't negative things about it and not that tyranny sometimes doesn't emerge, you know, as a part of it. But, basically, it's a great thing. These women have become the backbone of our people in a very necessary way. This--

Studs Terkel Underground Railway leaders?

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. Yes. The Irish reflect this, I think. There's a relationship between Mother Younger in this play and Juno which is very strong and obvious. I think there's always a relationship, perhaps. I don't know that much about Irish history but there was probably a necessity why, among oppressed peoples, the mother will assume a certain kind of role.

Studs Terkel In a way she's almost--that's not, that's the wrong word I'm using--as if there's almost a front. Not really a front but the guy, you know, immediately the guy, of any people, under pressure is the prime target to begin with, maybe. I don't know. Possibly.

Lorraine Hansberry This has an element of it. Obviously, people who are sophisticated enough to know it say that, obviously, the most oppressed group of any oppressed group will be its women, you know? Obviously. Since women, period, are oppressed in society and if you've got an oppressed group they're twice oppressed. So I should imagine that they react accordingly as oppression makes people more militant and so forth and so on then twice militant because they're twice oppressed so that there's an assumption of leadership historically.

Studs Terkel I want to come back to Mrs. Younger [unintelligible] but you mentioned Juno so, there's something you said in the current issue of "New Yorker": your feelings about O'Casey.

Lorraine Hansberry Yes.

Studs Terkel O'Casey, the playwright. You were talking about--

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. I love Sean O'Casey.

Studs Terkel What is it about O'Casey? Of course, your play has a certain life to it now. What do you think about O'Casey?

Lorraine Hansberry Well, O'Casey is divided, first of all. When I speak of the O'Casey that I love, I mean things like "Shadow of a Gunman" and "Juno" and--I've never read "The Plough and the Stars". I want to. But this area--and "Red Roses for Me". This, to me, is the playwright of the 20th century accepting and using the most obvious instruments of Shakespeare. Which is the human personality and its totality. I've always thought this is profoundly significant for Negro writers: to use. Not to copy. There's no reason to copy. The material here is too rich to copy anybody. But as a model, as a point of departure. O'Casey never fools you about the Irish, you see. You've got the Irish drunkard, the Irish braggart, the Irish--

Studs Terkel Liar.

Lorraine Hansberry Liar. Who is always talking about how he's going to fight the revolution when the English really show up, you know he runs and gets under the bed and the young girl goes out to fight with the Tommies, you see, and so forth and so on. And the genuine heroism which must naturally emerge when you tell the truth about people. This to me is the height of artistic perception. And is the most rewarding kind of thing that can happen in drama because when you believe people so completely, you know, that they're so recognizable because everybody has their drunkards and their braggarts and their cowards, then you also believe them in their moments of heroic assertion.

Studs Terkel Heroism, too.

Lorraine Hansberry You know. You don't doubt them. You don't feel like, well, this is soap opera. [pause in recording]

Studs Terkel Then Walter Lee: What you said can be directly applied to your own work, really, because you showed Walter Lee's frailties throughout. And when he did emerge in that heroic moment we believed.

Lorraine Hansberry That was the hope. That was the intent. Also, the other thing about O'Casey is that, in other words, what I believe in, for instance, if we're really going to talk technical dramaturgy, is what I do not believe in is naturalism. I think naturalism should die away and a quiet death. I do believe in realism.

Studs Terkel By naturalism you mean the tape-recorded kind of--

Lorraine Hansberry Precisely. That this is not [art?]--

Studs Terkel If [we were?] to say Chayefsky, in a way.

Lorraine Hansberry Not because--the only reason I say that is because I'm talking about it negatively at the moment, and there are things about Chayefsky which I think have been very important for American television drama. But naturalism is its own limitation, you know. In other words, if you just repeat what is, you can go and show a murder and say, "this is the whole of life" because, after all, there it is: you've made a photographic reproduction of it. Go deny it. It's true, it's real. Realism demands the imposition of a point of view. And the point of view of O'Casey is always the wonder, of the nobility of people. And he literally imposes it on us. It's the additional dimension always of the humanity of people. And he literally imposes it on us. And he uses something which I can't imitate because I'm not equipped to. He uses poetic dialogue which moves it out of the realm of what I'm able to write into this field of great art. I wish I could. I think, as a matter of [fact?], there are parallels between Negro speech, even urban Negro speech in America, and urban Irish speech which should make it very easy but it doesn't happen.

Studs Terkel There is a great deal of poetry, I felt. I'm not buttering you, now.

Lorraine Hansberry Well I'm glad to hear it.

Studs Terkel There is a great deal of poetry in "Raisin in the Sun" because it, to me, again, not naturalism, as you say, but--and not realism, as such--but larger than life. Isn't that what you meant? Theater should be larger than life?

Lorraine Hansberry Always. Always. There used to be a ballet in this play.

Studs Terkel There was a ballet?

Lorraine Hansberry There used to be a balle--I had a letter from Max Lerner. I don't know if that means anything to Chicago listeners.

Studs Terkel Yes, it does. I think there are many Max Lerner readers here.

Lorraine Hansberry And he said to me that--oh, excuse me. Rather, he wrote a column on the play, you know. In the column--

Studs Terkel In the "New York Post".

Lorraine Hansberry In the "New York Post". And he said--it was a very good column--and he said that he liked the play very much, how it was a little too literal for his taste and those places where Miss Hansberry almost let go her imagination she suddenly remembered that she was a nice, proper girl and then got back to this very literal play, you see. He was very much enamored of the African scene for instance, you know. Walter gets up, which, and so forth, is--

Studs Terkel Walter as the warrior, that one where he--

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. And where he speaks in open poet, poetic declarations about the coming time when we're going to march and so forth and so on which is a half of the man which only realism could impose on the scene. Not naturalism because in naturalism it would never happen. Nobody would believe it. And I wrote him a note and I said, your--that was a very interesting remark because I was the one who was tamed, you know. I think that imagination has no bounds in a realism, that you can do anything which is permissible in terms of the truth of the characters and that's all, that's all that you have to care about. And I told him that there had once been a ballet, a modern ballet in this play.

Studs Terkel [unintelligible] as you, when you originally wrote this?

Lorraine Hansberry That's right. When the motifs of the characters were to have been done in modern dance. It didn't work.

Studs Terkel It may not have worked [unintelligible] but the fact is, that you had a ballet in mind indicates that there was a poetic feeling, you see?

Lorraine Hansberry Right. It indicates some of the directions that I feel I would go.

Studs Terkel There's something you said a moment ago and I know Bill Leonard of the "Trib" interviewed you briefly this afternoon. The play, some will ask you, "Is this autobiographical?"

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. They keep asking.

Studs Terkel Yet, your background is not--your background, culturally, may be the place--to some extent, background--but it is not specifically.

Lorraine Hansberry No, it isn't. I've tried to explain this to people. I come from a extremely comfortable background, materially speaking and, yet, I've also tried to explain we live in a ghetto, you know? Which automatically means intimacy with all classes and all kinds of experiences. It's not any more difficult for me to know the people that I wrote about than it is for me to know members of my family because there is that kind of intimacy. This is one of the things that the American experience has meant to Negroes: we are one people. I also tried to tell the people at "The New Yorker", you know, in that interview that you read, that I had a reason for choosing this particular class. I guess at this moment the Negro middle class may be from five to six to seven percent of our people. The, you know, comfortable middle class. And I believe that they are atypical of the more representative experience of Negroes in this country. Therefore, I have to believe that whatever we ultimately achieve, however we ultimately transform our lives, will come from the kind of people that I chose to portray. That, therefore, they are more pertinent, more relevant, more significant, and most important, most decisive in our political history and our political future.

Studs Terkel This is, here again is the mark of a playwright, if I may interject this--outside your own. Within your experience and yet outside it in the material sense.

Lorraine Hansberry Yes.

Studs Terkel Of course, [you sensed?] here was the more dramatic.

Lorraine Hansberry Yes.

Studs Terkel [unintelliible] Figure. The little girl, if I may, I want to bring up a personal thing: the very charming and alive little sister. Is this slightly autobiographical? [Stage this?]

Lorraine Hansberry Oh, she's very autobiographical, my sister. My brother would tell you that. This, as a matter of fact, it's an expression of conceit, really, because the truth of the matter is that I enjoyed making fun of this girl, who is myself eight years ago, you know. I enjoy making fun of her because I have that kind of confidence about what she represents. I'm not worried about her, you know. She's precocious, she's over outspoken, she's everything, you know, which tends to be comic and, you know, people sigh with her and they have one at home like that, you know, and they enjoy her for this reason.

Studs Terkel She's very much alive.

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. But I also feel that she doesn't have a word in the play that I don't agree with still today. I would say it differently today.

Studs Terkel That's it--she doesn't have a word in the play you don't--you would say it differently, in a more mature way today?

Lorraine Hansberry I hope it's more mature.

Studs Terkel But, basically, the kid is right.

Lorraine Hansberry Oh, I think so. Yes. She's suspect of many things that Walter Lee accepts, you see. He has the energy and he has the will at the moment to make the decisive decisions. That's why I say that he's a pivotal character. As a matter of fact, if I could just digress, people have--I've been interested in some of the criticisms of the play. We had one letter in "The New York Times" from--you could tell by the tone and quality of the letter--from a very sophisticated young man sitting somewhere who said that he regarded it as soap opera, you know, which amused me. And, because if anyone wanted to discuss this play in terms of soap opera they'd have a great deal of trouble because soap opera implies melodrama, and melodrama has a classical definition. If you can prove that there are no motivated crises in this play I would be astonished. So I don't think it qualifies as melodrama. I think it's a legitimate drama. Or a happy ending; if he thinks that's a happy ending I invite him to come [out?].

Studs Terkel Well, he's welcome [to go to?] Trumbull Park.

Lorraine Hansberry Go live in one of those communities where these people are [going?]. However, so that character of criticism I am inclined to be contentious of because it's based on a snobbery that doesn't understand things, that doesn't understand the profundity of things that are deliberately simple.

Studs Terkel Lorraine, you hit a very tender point with me--I won't go into this--on this very, on the letter written by that young man. I'm very well acquainted with [it?].

Lorraine Hansberry What I do want to say, though, is that I'm not hostile to legitimate criticism. And one other thing that's been very interesting to me is that no one has picked out something that I think [is?] a very genuine criticism of the play. That is that it lacks a central character in true classical sense. There is no central character in this play.

Studs Terkel Do you mean--

Lorraine Hansberry There is a pivotal character.

Studs Terkel In Walter Lee.

Lorraine Hansberry Yes.

Studs Terkel But [unintelligible]--because some will say, some will tell you Mrs. Young [is the pivotal character?], isn't that it?

Lorraine Hansberry That's right.

Studs Terkel [unintelligible]

Lorraine Hansberry People come out and they think it's the mother, or they think it's the son, and some people are so enamored of the daughter they're not sure that she isn't really more relevant in some way or somehow. Well this is, to me, a weakness of the play.

Studs Terkel Is this really a weakness? I mean, must there, of course, is it, must it about a single--you see, this is a play in a sense of--maybe you're right--a play about a--I think of "Awake and Sing!" for the moment, you see. Who was central character in what was a very excellent play of a Jewish lower-middle-class family? There was no central--any more than in yours, really, was there?

Lorraine Hansberry Well, obviously when you start breaking rules you may be doing it for a good reason and you may find something else. And since people are able to hold on to the play and become involved in a way that the central character is supposed to guarantee then maybe you don't really need it.

Studs Terkel Yeah. I wonder if--

Lorraine Hansberry But, for me, all I'm saying is that, in my view of drama, the great plays have always had a central character with whom we rise or fall no matter what. The Greeks through Shakespeare--

Studs Terkel [Lilly?] or Hamlet or--

Lorraine Hansberry Through Ibsen. And so. The aura--

Studs Terkel The African suitor, you know, I've come to something now, has always intrigued me very much, [if may I ask?]--

Lorraine Hansberry It's my favorite character.

Studs Terkel Sidney Poitier. He's a remarkable figure. Who is he? What is his meaning in this particular play in contrast to the others?

Lorraine Hansberry He represents two things. He represents, first of all, the true intellectual. This is a young man who is so absolutely confident in his understanding and his perception about the world that he has no need for any of the facade of pseudo-intellectuality, for any of the pretenses and the, you know, the nonsense which is why he can laugh at her. She's just getting to a point of understanding where he's been already, you know. He can already kid about all the features of intense nationalism because he's been there and he understands it beyond that point. He's already concerned about the human race on a new level. He's a true, genuine intellectual. He's a man who's involved in concepts so that he doesn't have time or interest, except for amusement, in useless passion and useless promenading of ideas. That's partially what he represents, that's one part of it. The other thing that he represents is much more overt. I was aware that on the Broadway stage they had never seen an African who didn't have his shoes hanging around his neck, you know, and a bone through his nose or his ears or something.

Studs Terkel The stereotype.

Lorraine Hansberry And I thought that, even just theatrically speaking, this would most certainly be refreshing, you know. And, again, it required no departure from truth because the only Africans that I have known, of course, have been African students in the United States who this boy is a composite of many of them, as a matter fact, no one guy. And what they have represented to me in life is what this fellow represents in the play. Excuse me. And that is the emergence of an articulate and deeply conscious colonial intelligentsia in the world. I'm very much concerned and caught up in the movements of the African peoples toward colonial liberation, liberation out of colonialism, and he represents that to me. He also signifies a, you know, a hangover of something that began in the 30s when Negro intellectuals first discovered the African past and became very aware of it.

Studs Terkel Garveyism and everything else at the time, maybe?

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. That was part of it in a different sense--

Studs Terkel

Lorraine Hansberry Yeah-- But I meant particularly in poetry and the creative arts.

Studs Terkel Well, the culture that was there.

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. Hughes did this and Africa this and Africa that. I still feel this way, I want to reclaim it.

Studs Terkel The great culture of--

Lorraine Hansberry Not physically, I don't mean I want to move to--

Studs Terkel But, I think this is--I'm glad you mentioned this--so many anthropologists agree. I mean, the great culture that is there, that has been, and that was stolen, too.

Lorraine Hansberry Oh, sure. Sure. And which may very well make very decisive contributions to the development of the world in the next few years.

Studs Terkel There's a point--

Lorraine Hansberry I suspect it's going to.

Studs Terkel I'm sure it will. There's a point--

Lorraine Hansberry Asagai is an angry young man who can be very quiet in his anger.

Studs Terkel This is the young student?

Lorraine Hansberry The African student.

Studs Terkel You say he is an angry young man?

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. Who can be quiet in his anger.

Studs Terkel There's a point I want to raise. Now, you may get a kick out of this and disagree: when Sidney Poitier and Leon Bibb, his friend, the singer, you know? [Who were interviewed?]

Lorraine Hansberry Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.

Studs Terkel They spoke of the young student, they say he's an idealist. He would have a rough time--now, see whether you agree with this, this is a very interesting point--they say Nkrumah and Kenyatta are very practical men--is the point they were making--and he, your friend, would have a rough time in the power battle, as such. He might be--

Lorraine Hansberry With?

Studs Terkel [So much?] hamburger squeezed between two forces. This was the inference--I hope I haven't misinterpreted them. I bring this up--

Lorraine Hansberry They were saying that Asagai--

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Lorraine Hansberry The African student in the play, as opposed to men like Kenyatta and Nkrumah--

Studs Terkel That's right.

Lorraine Hansberry Is an idealist?

Studs Terkel Yeah. That's right.

Lorraine Hansberry [unintelligible]

Studs Terkel And that they admire--

Lorraine Hansberry That's interesting.

Studs Terkel They admire the two men they were talking about. They were saying that he may be just taken, is the in--he might be victimized by, in a rough and tumble battle, being the idealist he is, you see?

Lorraine Hansberry Except that this man has an ideological preparation for that. In fact, in one sense, he gives the statement of the play, you know? I don't know how many people get it but he does. He says--she says to him, "You're always talking about independence and freedom in Africa but what about the time when that happens and then you have crooks and petty thieves who come into power and they'll do the same things only now they'll be Black," you know. "So what's the difference?" And he says to her that this is virtually irrelevant in terms of history, that when that time comes there will be Nigerians to step out of the shadows and kill the tyrants, just as now they must do away with the British. And that history always solves its own questions but you get to first things first. In other words, this man has no illusions at all.

Studs Terkel This is a wonderful answer. This, this--

Lorraine Hansberry He just believes in the order that things must take. He knows that first, before you can start talking about what's wrong with independence, get it. And I'm with him.

Studs Terkel That's wonder--will you tell me that to them when you get [back there?]. [pause in recording] Again, if I may come back now and be personal in my reactions to the play when it opened here in Chicago. I was so completely taken with the direction of Lloyd Richards, incidentally, too.

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. It's brilliant, I thought.

Studs Terkel Of course, the cast but the play's the thing. We'll come back to that again and you. And the next question: We've sort of talked of "Raisin" now and you have, I imagine, a number of projects in mind. If--I don't want to dig here unless you feel free, yourself. What projects you're thinking of tackling?

Lorraine Hansberry Well, of all things in the world I have become involved in doing an opera libretto. Which I do hesitate to talk about because I'm--

Studs Terkel All right. This is certainly [exciting?].

Lorraine Hansberry Just getting into it and terrified of it. I don't know a thing in the world about writing an opera but I'm going to do one with a young Negro composer in New York who I think is enormously talented and imaginative in his music.

Studs Terkel We'll let that rest for a moment and we'll see it. That's it--we'll see it. But since you mentioned opera there was a--perhaps you were misquoted or I want to get--"The New York Times" quoted you. You spoke of a certain irritation in seeing plays, so called. Plays about the Negro, as such, written by people wholly removed--

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. Yes.

Studs Terkel From the situation. What was the crack? It was [rather?] wonderful--about "Carmen Jones"--something you said about it that was very funny.

Lorraine Hansberry Well, as you know, I probably alluded to the fact that I've been struck that the whole concept of the exotic, you know; that in Europe they think that, well, the gypsy is just the most exotic thing that ever walked across the earth is because he's isolated from the mainstream of European life. So that, obviously, the natural parallel in American life is the Negro, you know, very exotic. So whenever they get ready to do something like a Bizet opera which involves the gypsies of Spain it's translated, they think, very neatly into a Negro piece. And I just think this is sort of a bore by now. That this is--it's very fine music but, you know.

Studs Terkel The cliches are there.

Lorraine Hansberry I'm bored for the cliches.

Studs Terkel It's pretty worrisome by now.

Lorraine Hansberry I don't think very many people realize how boring, aside from being nauseating, that stereotyped notions are also very dull. You know, I think this is said far too--not often enough that--it isn't only a matter that "Porgy and Bess"--I'm talking about the book now because once again this is good music, this is beautiful music. I mean this is great American music in which the roots of our native opera are to be found. Someday. But the book--the Dubose Haywood book--not only is that offensive, you know, it isn't only that it insults me because it's a degrading concept and a degrading way of looking at people but it's bad art because it doesn't tell the truth and fiction demands the truth. You know. You have to give [a?] many-sided character. In other words, there is no excuse for stereotype. Now I'm not talking socially or politically. I'm talking as an artist now.

Studs Terkel Aesthetically now [you're saying?].

Lorraine Hansberry Exactly. That if someone feels that this is a lie, you know, because it's just one half of me then the artist should shudder for reasons other than the NAACP. The responsible artist.

Studs Terkel Something you just said: art must tell the truth.

Lorraine Hansberry I think so. It's almost the only place where you can tell it.

Studs Terkel What about writing today? Whether it be drama--I'm thinking of, more specifically, I'm--young Negro writers today. I mean, any hit you? There's John Killens, "Youngblood", perhaps? Or?

Lorraine Hansberry Well, there isn't a great deal happening. I've just started to read Frank London Brown's book and--

Studs Terkel "Trumbull Park".

Lorraine Hansberry I'm not equipped to talk about it because I'm just starting to get into it. There's a young guy in New York who's been one of the exiles who's come home, [we're?] starting a new movement against the 30s. Some of the American kids are coming back now from Paris and Rome. Jimmy Baldwin, you know.

Studs Terkel Well, he'd gone away.

Lorraine Hansberry Who had got--he left. He went. Enough.

Studs Terkel Did Baldwin do that, too? Yeah.

Lorraine Hansberry Baldwin is who I'm talking about.

Studs Terkel Oh, James Baldwin?

Lorraine Hansberry James Baldwin. Who is back and who I think--I don't read novels that much, I'm ashamed to say, for somebody who [wants?] to write one--but I think, from what I read of his essays, and some of his fiction, that this is undoubtedly one of the most talented American writers walking around. And if he can wed his particular gifts, I think which are just way beyond most of us trying to write--at many levels--to material of substance, then we have the potential of a great American writer. He's one that I think of.

Studs Terkel He came back. This is interesting. I'm thinking, of course, of someone very definite: Richard Wright, of course.

Lorraine Hansberry Yes. Who didn't come back now.

Studs Terkel And what a talent.

Lorraine Hansberry And who has not been [just?] impressive in his output, in my opinion.

Studs Terkel Would you feel, since you said this--this last thing you just said--do you feel--this may sound like a cliche, what I'm saying--away, away from roots--I hate to use the word--and yet, Richard Wright, who was so close and strong.

Lorraine Hansberry No.

Studs Terkel Go ahead.

Lorraine Hansberry You know

Studs Terkel why? Go ahead.

Lorraine Hansberry Because--and I said this on television in New York recently--this thing of being away from one's roots. I was making a different point, what I was saying is somebody, people are always talking about how "don't get lost in a cause", you know, because this is what destroys art. And I've been obliged to remind people [that?] for 200 years the only writers in English literature we've had to boast about have been the Irish, who come from an oppressed culture, you know? Shaw, O'Casey.

Studs Terkel Joyce.

Lorraine Hansberry From Jonathan Swift to James Joyce and so forth and so on. You name them in the last 200 years and they've been Irishmen. Which I don't think is an accident even though they aren't protest writers in the sense that we think of in the United States. But, also, most of them have been writing outside of Ireland. In other words, O'Casey is writing his Dublin plays, you know, in Devonshire in England and they still ring and have good Irish flavor and the Irish don't seem to reject them in terms of, you know, being false so I guess it's good. No, I think there must be some other reason why Wright deteriorated.

Studs Terkel Well, you've answered my question right there. That's beautiful. That's [Wright?]. What--

Lorraine Hansberry I don't know what the reason is because I think he had within him the possibilities to have been the greatest American writer. Because what he had, I think, would have made William Faulkner seem just peculiar. Which, of course, is what he seems, anyhow, in my opinion.

Studs Terkel Go ahead. You just said--what do you mean by that?

Lorraine Hansberry Well, I haven't even read that much Faulkner but I'm not impressed with obscurity. I think it's easier. For all I know the man could be a genius. For all I know he might be the reverse. I just can't tell from obscurity. Sooner or later I have to be able to get some sense of organization and treatment of material that lets me know that there is skill here, or genius, you know. And I can't tell this from a Faulkner.

Studs Terkel Clarity?

Lorraine Hansberry Or for that matter, for much of James Joyce. But at least his point of departure was one I could understand. And Wright, of course, belonged to another tradition of American writing. I don't even think it was a conscious belonging but he did. That, you know, I think came to flower in things like "Grapes of Wrath" and the novel of that nature. If my husband were here he'd say Theodore Dreiser, [actively?].

Studs Terkel Dreiser. Mmm-hmm.

Lorraine Hansberry But I'd like to see that kind of panoramic power reemerge in the American novel. I think, maybe, it may come from a Negro novelist.

Studs Terkel Someone like Baldwin who may have been away and has returned? You don't know?

Lorraine Hansberry I don't know if Baldwin's eyes are that wide. The gifts are there, you know.

Studs Terkel "If his eyes are that wide"--that's a beautiful phrase. I like that. I love that phrase. Well, it's obvious--

Lorraine Hansberry He feels. I'm worried about what he sees, you know? That gets to be the problem.

Studs Terkel Well, I think it's obvious that it's no accident that "Raisin in the Sun" came to be written by Lorraine Hansberry after we've been listening to her now. And I know this is late at night here at home and I wish, I'd suggest people read the current issue of "The New Yorker" and you can find there, too, the graciousness in Miss Hansberry and the tremendous demands--what about success? This little god of success--what does it do to you? It obviously deprives you of privacy to some ex--well, right now it does.

Lorraine Hansberry Yeah. It does.

Studs Terkel This one moment here.

Lorraine Hansberry It does except it's wonderful. It's wonderful and I'm enjoying it. I think it's important. I think there comes a time when, you know, you pull the telephone out and you go off and you end it. But for the time being I am enjoying every bit of it. I've tried to go to everything I've been invited to. I shouldn't even say this on the air but so far I've tried to answer every piece of correspondence I get. Which, as I said in the piece, gets to be about twenty, thirty pieces a day at this point. But this, I don't have the right to be very personal about the reception to this play because I think the reception to this play transcends what I did or what Sidney Poitier or Lloyd Richards or even Philip Rose or any of us connected with it. I think what it reflects at this moment is, that at this particular moment in our country, as backward and as depressed as I, for instance, am about so much of it, there's a new mood. I think we went through eight to 10 years of misery under McCarthy and all that nonsense and to the great credit of the American people they got rid of it. And they're feeling like, make new sounds. And I'm glad I was here to make one, you know?

Studs Terkel Beautiful. "Make new sounds". That's--the best of jazzmen say that, too. But in this case, certainly, one of the most sensitive of writers says it.

Lorraine Hansberry It's a close relationship.

Studs Terkel [Yeah. I think it is?].

Lorraine Hansberry I've often said that the glory of Langston Hughes was that he took the quality of the blues and put it into our poetry. And I think when the Negro dramatist can begin to approach a little of that quality you might almost get close to what O'Casey does in putting the Irish folk song into play. I'd like to.

Studs Terkel Well, I think Lorraine Hansberry is on that road. Certainly. Thank you very much. And is there anything you, as sort of a postscript--I always allow this opening. Anything else you care to say? Anything? It doesn't matter. That you haven't said thus far?

Lorraine Hansberry You mean quickly or a paragraph?

Studs Terkel No, no. As much time as you want.

Lorraine Hansberry I can always say something.

Studs Terkel We're not bound to [the clock?].

Lorraine Hansberry I'd say this: that I spoke of how I think there's a new affirmative political mood and social mood in our country having to do with the fact that people are finally even getting aware that Negroes are tired and it's time to do something about that question. But beyond that, in terms of the total picture, I'd also like to see a parallel to it in terms of the culture of our country. I can see no reason in the world why the American theater should be lined up on, about, six blocks on Broadway in New York City. I'd like to [maybe?] see a little agitation to get a national theater and other art programs in this country so that the kids all over the United States can go see Shakespeare without thinking it's a bore, you know. Or Lorraine Hansberry or Eugene O'Neill. That's all.

Studs Terkel Well, a double thank you for that, certainly. Lorraine Hansberry. And you people who have missed the play here during its pre-New York run, go to New York. Well, if you can get tickets, fine. But some day it will return to Chicago. Obviously, it will when the national company comes and the original company. Lorraine Hansberry, playwright, human being. Thank you very much. [pause in recording] That was a conversation that occurred 12 years ago here in Chicago with Lorraine Hansberry, the late Miss Hansberry. It was in conjunction with the opening, pre-New York opening of her play, "A Raisin in the Sun". And in thinking of the conversation, you think of 12 years--how much has happened, and how little has happened. Both. And the references, of course. Many references are dated. Don't get the current issue of "The New Yorker" about Lorraine Hansberry because that was 1959. But it would seem the theme is still--fortunately and unfortunately--quite contemporary. And [I thought of] one of the excerpts from the production, the performance of "To Be Young, Gifted and Black". It's a collection of various unfinished pieces by Lorraine Hansberry. And Shauneille Perry offers this one, "Summer" [sic]. And this is really autobiographical, too, because her girlhood was here. "Summer in Chicago" [sic]:

Shauneille Perry "My childhood South Side summers were the ordinary city kind, full of the street games which other rememberers have turned into fine ballets these days, and rhymes that anticipated what some people insist on calling modern poetry: [sings:] "Oh, Mary Mack, Mack, Mack with the silver buttons, buttons, buttons All down her back, back, back She asked her mother, mother, mother for fifteen cents, cents, cents To see the elephant, elephant, elephant Jump the fence, fence, fence Well, he jumped so high, high, high Til he touched the sky, sky, sky And he didn't come back, back, back Til the Fourth of Ju-ly, ly, ly!. [speaks:] I remember skinny little South side bodies by the fives and tens of us panting the delicious hours away: 'May I?' And the voice of authority: 'Yes, you may--you may take one giant step.' One drew in all one's breath and tightened one's fist and pulled the small body against the heavens, stretching, straining all the muscles in the legs to make - one giant step. It is a long time. One forgets the reason for the game. (For children's games are always explicit in their reasons for being. To play is to win something. Or not to be 'it'. Or to be high pointer, or outdoer or, sometimes--just the winner. But after a time one forgets.) Why was it important to take a small step, a teeny step, or the most desired of all--one GIANT step? A giant step to where?"+

Studs Terkel Since she was singing "Mary Mack, Mack, Mack" why not some kids singing it, too? The very inspiration of it. This is somewhere in Alabama but it could be the streets of Chicago, still is, and we'll hear the kids singing it: [content removed, see catalog record] That's Billie Holiday, of course. I thought a segue there from the ring games to Billie Holiday because she, too, was a small girl in Baltimore. I remember seeing her talking about "Mary Mack" and the ring games. And that's one of the earliest of Billie Holiday's recordings, "Fine and Mellow". It's the reverse side of "Strange Fruit", on old Commodore. And Billie Holiday was also a favorite of Lorraine Hansberry. Also, a postscript: Peggy Terry just called me-- Mrs. Terry lives in Uptown. She's from Kentucky, Oklahoma, and is one of the heroines of Uptown. One of the heroines of "Hard Times", too. I don't mean just the book, I mean of hard times. And she said the first play she ever saw was "Raisin in the Sun" and she was taken to it by her friend, Emma Tiller, who is also a heroine of "Hard Times" and, again, I don't mean just the book, though she's in it, but of hard times. And so there seems to be a connecting link that I find interesting. That's a good adjective.