Excerpt from new book ‘Rise Up!’
It was date night in Manhattan for Barack and Michelle Obama. The president, the Associated Press reported, was wearing a suit and the First Lady was clad in a “sparkly black top and a chic black leather jacket.” They were out on the town.
Their Friday night-off this April 11 began at Maialino, a swanky Italian trattoria in the Gramercy Park Hotel. From there, the presidential motorcade headed to a cordoned-off 47th Street and to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where the Obamas’ friend Denzel Washington was headlining a revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s poetic drama about a struggling black Chicago family with dreams of leaving their cramped, roach-filled apartment and moving to a new house, dreams so forceful and determined that they might just overcome the resistance of a white neighborhood that did not want them. In 1959, when the famous Supreme Court case known as Brown v. Board of Education still was less than five years old, “A Raisin in the Sun” had become the first play by an African American woman ever to appear on Broadway.
With Sidney Poitier playing the role now played by Washington, “A Raisin in the Sun” would try out at the Blackstone Theatre in Hansberry’s home town of Chicago, where it struggled to attract an audience for its early performances, with most of the tickets being given away. But just a few days later, it would be so buoyed by a critic named Claudia Cassidy at the conservative Chicago Tribune, a critic whom Hansberry had feared to the point where she had written a fake review in Cassidy’s acidic style decrying her own play, box office receipts would lend courage to the lead producer, Philip Rose, who had been struggling to raise enough money for a Broadway run.
Cassidy had said the play suggested “something urgent was on its way,” and that she admired the talent of its writer. “This is theater with reverberations,” Cassidy had written, “echoes and a tug at the remembering heart.”
Cassidy would prove more correct than she could possibly have realized when it came to reverberations. Hansberry’s most interesting character was Walter Lee Younger, a chauffeur who was too smart for his job and whose frustration with doors being slammed in his face boiled over into the kind of raging dysfunction that would spark many an August Wilson monologue. He would become a prototype of all kinds of rebellion, much of it to follow a decade or so after the Broadway success of a play far ahead of its time.
That night in 2014, Washington was (and seemed on stage) at least two decades older than Hansberry had intended Walter to be, but Walter Lee Younger was the iconic role Washington had wanted to play, and that desire, coupled with Washington’s formidable star- power and clout at the box office, is what had made the revival viable. Everyone knew that without Washington, none of this would have been happening, including the visit of the Obamas.
Projected on the pre-show curtain that April evening was a quote from the poem by Langston Hughes from which Hansberry, a child of the Depression, a daughter of Chicago’s highly segregated South Side, a woman who said she had often seen examples of man’s inhumanity to man, had borrowed the title of her revolutionary play: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” To many in the theater before the show that remarkable night, both out front and backstage, it seemed like the dream deferred was about to walk through the door.
To anyone who had read Hansberry’s writing, there could be no doubt that Obama was a president she would have loved.
Although her various radical memberships, associations, and proclamations had put her on the radar of the notorious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover when she was just 22 years old, Hansberry was a humanist who consistently and constantly articulated her conviction that a racist society dehumanizes everybody, whites as well as blacks. She often repeated her belief that small changes eventually topple old prejudices, and she thought that to write about the pain of racism did not mean that you could not also write about the inexorable march of progress. Plus she understood people in a notable nonjudgmental way — especially married men. In one of the most moving lines of the play, Ruth says to her husband, Walter Lee, “How did we get to a place where we are scared to talk softly to each other?” It was a line that would be greeted by murmurs of recognition from the audience in 2014, just as it had in 1959.
Prior to the 1959 opening of “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway, Hansberry had written a letter to her mother: “Mama,” she had written, “it is a play that tells the truth about people, Negroes and life and I think it will help a lot of people to understand how we are just as complicated as they are — and just as mixed up — but above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks — people who are the very essence of human dignity.”
The necessity of empathy, of furthering the American promise of for human dignity for all, would be a constant theme of the presidency of Barack Obama, who would be called upon, among many such duties, to explain to the rest of the mostly oblivious country the pain felt by African Americans after the 2012 Florida shooting of the unarmed Trayvon Martin, shot by a neighborhood-watch volunteer. He did so. Nonetheless, Obama’s firm conviction was that he was the president of all Americans and must be seen as such, and thus it did not behoove him to use any kind of exclusionary language that might encourage Americans to pit themselves against each other.
Throughout his presidency, Obama rarely used the language of identity politics. He did not need to do so.
The cast of “A Raisin in the Sun” — working alongside Washington were the high-powered actresses LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Sophie Okonedo, and Anika Noni Rose — had been hearing rumors all week about a VIP guest that Friday night. The lead producer, Scott Rudin, had been told who was coming, but had also been sworn to secrecy.
But by the middle of the day itself, word had gotten around the Broadway community that the guest was to be the president of the United States and the First Lady. Kenny Leon, the director of the production, hurriedly flew back from his vacation, so he could sit by the Obamas. Rudin, who put the revival together in consultation with Washington, and who had hired Leon, headed early to the theater, where he was destined to spend much of the night in tears.
Those lucky enough to have bought ordinary tickets that night realized something was up when they found a temporary white tent in front of the theater, containing obligatory metal detectors. A few minutes after the advertised curtain time, everyone was asked to put away their cellphones and told to take their seats.
Lorraine Hansberry leans over her typewriter in her Greenwich Village apartment on Bleecker Street during her April 1959 photoshoot for Vogue.