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A rarely revived Lorraine Hansberry play comes to Broadway

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In 1959, playwright Lorraine Hansberry rocketed to stardom with "A Raisin In The Sun." Five years later, she had another Broadway production, "The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window." That show has rarely been revived, but it's back now. It opened last week with a celebrity cast, including Oscar Isaac of "Star Wars" fame. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Let's address the elephant in the room. Writing "A Raisin In The Sun" was both a blessing and a curse for its young Black playwright, says Joi Gresham, director of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust.

JOI GRESHAM: You know, she was, like, the it girl coming out of "Raisin In The Sun."

LUNDEN: That play, which realistically depicted a Black family in Chicago, took Broadway by storm, became a popular film and has subsequently become part of high school curriculums. But when "The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window," a critique of white liberalism that takes place in Greenwich Village, debuted in 1964, critics were not as enamored.

GRESHAM: There was a real resistance and intolerance of it, a resentment. She left her lane. And there's always this tone of, who does she think she is?

LUNDEN: Yet Hansberry was writing from personal experience. She lived among the artists, intellectuals and social activists in Greenwich Village. Unfortunately, the play that opened on Broadway was unfinished because Hansberry was dying of cancer. And while she did rewrites from a hotel room across the street from the theater, she was too ill to attend rehearsals and previews. Just a few months after it opened, the 34-year-old playwright died, and the play closed.

OSCAR ISAAC: It's wild, and it's messy and imperfect but incredibly powerful.

LUNDEN: Film and theater star Oscar Isaac plays Sidney Brustein, the intellectual whose life and marriage unravel over the course of the evening. He says messiness is one of the play's virtues.

ISAAC: The wildness of it and the - at times, the incoherent way that the motivations or seemingly lack of motivation occurs with the characters that feels so true to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN'S WINDOW")

RACHEL BROSNAHAN: (As Iris) I couldn't believe it - that you should love me. I felt I was the luckiest girl in the world.

ISAAC: (As Sidney) What do you mean was?

BROSNAHAN: (As Iris) Please. I'm trying to tell you something.

ISAAC: (As Sidney) I'm trying to listen.

BROSNAHAN: (As Iris) Try harder.

LUNDEN: Hansberry's personal life was certainly complicated. While she was married to Robert Nemiroff, a white man who was a close collaborator and became her literary executor, she had several long-term relationships with women. Director Anne Kauffman says the topics in "The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window" feel relevant in 2023, maybe even more so than when it was written.

ANNE KAUFFMAN: We really don't know which way is up with race politics, with culture, with social issues, with what it is to be human these days. And who should we listen to at this moment but Lorraine Hansberry, who was prescient? And I feel like we're still catching up with her.

LUNDEN: Kauffman says the play is a call to activism, and its characters are caught between cynicism and hope in a chaotic world. Oscar Isaac says he's struck by an exchange Sidney has with another character in the play.

ISAAC: She says, you can't expect people to change like that. And he says, the world's about to crack right down the middle. We have to change or fall into the crack.

BROSNAHAN: One of the things I really appreciate about Lorraine is her embrace of small change as powerful change.

LUNDEN: Rachel Brosnahan plays Iris, a would-be actress who's engaged in a struggle to find her own identity and independence from her strong-willed husband.

BROSNAHAN: Because unlike a lot of other plays, there's not such a clear beginning, middle and end to their journeys. It's really jagged.

LUNDEN: If the characters are in flux, the script has been, too. In creating an acting version for the Brooklyn production, literary executor Joi Gresham collaborated with director Anne Kauffman, looking at the four different published versions of the script, as well as Hansberry's notes and drafts in Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Culture.

GRESHAM: We've kind of landed in this incredible creative method, talking to one another, listening to Lorraine, listening to these different versions and trying to imagine where she would have gone with it.

LUNDEN: So is this the final version of "The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window?" Only time will tell. Rachel Brosnahan says there's one moment in the play she finds particularly touching, since it reflects Lorraine Hansberry's too-short life.

BROSNAHAN: I think about it all the time. I mean, the line is, I'm 29, and I want to begin to know that when I die, more than 10 or a hundred people will know the difference. I want to make it. It's beautiful. And I can't help but think about Lorraine. It's really moving.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Lunden
Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.
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