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A rarely revived Lorraine Hansberry play is here — and it's messy but powerful

Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan star in a rarely-revived Lorraine Hansberry play.
Catalina Kulczar
/
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan star in a rarely-revived Lorraine Hansberry play.

After playwright Lorraine Hansberry rocketed to stardom in 1959 with A Raisin in the Sun, she followed it up, five years later, with The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. The show had a short Broadway run and has rarely been revived.

Now, the first major New York production in almost 60 years is getting a first-class treatment at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) – it stars Oscar Isaac, of Star Wars fame, and Rachel Brosnahan, best known as the marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Writing A Raisin in the Sun was both a blessing and a curse for its young Black playwright.

"She was like the 'It' girl coming out of A Raisin in the Sun," said Joi Gresham, director of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust. That play, which realistically depicted a Black family on the South Side of Chicago, took Broadway by storm, became a popular film in 1961 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.

"There was a real resistance and intolerance of it," said Gresham. "A resentment ... she left her lane. And there's always this tone of 'Who does she think she is?' "

Yet Hansberry was writing from personal experience. She lived among the artists, intellectuals and social activists in Greenwich Village. "She wanted to write a play that was true to her experience," says Gresham, "and where she was living and her choices. And she wanted to talk about the people she knew."

Unfortunately, Hansberry was dying of cancer. While she did rewrites from a hotel room across the street from the Broadway theater, she was too ill to attend rehearsals and previews, and the play was unfinished. Just a few months after it opened, the 34-year-old playwright died, and the play closed.

"It's wild and it's messy and imperfect, but incredibly powerful," said film and theater star Oscar Isaac, who plays Sidney Brustein, the intellectual whose life and marriage unravel. "The wildness of it and the, at times, the incoherent way that the motivations – or seemingly lack of motivation – occurs with the characters ... feels so true to life."

Hansberry's own life was certainly complicated. While she was married to Robert Nemiroff, a white man and a close collaborator, she had several long-term relationships with women. Nemiroff and Hansberry ultimately divorced, but never stopped working together professionally.

Director Anne Kauffman says the many topics addressed in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window feel relevant in 2023 – maybe even more now than when it was written.

"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," Kauffman said. "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."

Lorraine Hansberry in New York City on April 7, 1959.
NY Herald Tribune / AP
/
AP
Lorraine Hansberry in New York City on April 7, 1959.

For Kauffman, the play is a call to activism. Its characters are caught between cynicism and hope in a chaotic world, in both large and small ways. Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Iris, said she sees that, too. Iris is a would-be actress, engaged in a struggle to find her own identity and independence from her strong-willed husband.

"One of the things I really appreciate about Lorraine is her embrace of small change as powerful change," Brosnahan said. "Because unlike a lot of other plays, there's not such a clear beginning, middle and end to their journeys. It's really jagged."

The characters are not the only thing in flux; the script is, too. After the Broadway production, there were four different published versions of the script, all edited by Robert Nemiroff.

Nemiroff's daughter, Joi Gresham, the estate's literary executor, closely collaborated with director Anne Kauffman to create the acting version for the Brooklyn production. They not only looked at the different published versions of the script, but also Hansberry's notes and drafts in Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research and Culture.

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

So, is this the final version of The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window? Only time will tell.

Brosnahan said there's one moment in the play she finds particularly touching, since it reflects Hansberry's too-short life. "The line is: 'I am 29 and I want to begin to know that when I die, more than 10 or 100 people will know the difference.'" she said. "It's beautiful. And I can't help but think about Lorraine."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.