The play that ‘Raisin in the Sun’ eclipsed is finally getting its due
The untimely demises of Hansberry and “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” have always seemed linked, even though decades of effort have gone into it by theater artists and those overseeing his estate to give the neglected play its due. This struggle ultimately resulted in a star-studded revival in New York from “The Sign” — one of Hansberry’s few plays – featuring Oscar Isaac (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”) as the drama’s flawed protagonist and Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) as his disenchanted wife.
The production could finally establish the play as a central part of Hansberry’s legacy and a vital entry into the American canon. “It has existed so far largely under the shadow of ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ which is like an albatross around its neck,” said Joi Gresham, director of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust. “I never really understood why he couldn’t breathe his own air, in his own space.”
Denzel Washington, in the 2014 Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”
The respite it now occupies is the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where director Anne Kauffman, in collaboration with Gresham, gives the play its chance to break through. (It officially opens Thursday night, with reviews embargoed until Monday due to covid cases in the cast.) The opportunity proved critical, not only because “Raisin” put Hansberry on a respectful perch in the American pantheon, but also because “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” is a stunning departure from his earlier triumph. It identifies an underrated range in Hansberry’s restless talent.
“If you only understand Hansberry as a civil rights playwright, you think, ‘What is this? What is this room? said Soyica Colbert, professor of African American studies and performing arts at Georgetown University and author of “Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry.”
“So you have to understand the fullness of her philosophical investments, the world that she lived in and that she constantly straddled those frontline activist positions and being on the American theatrical scene. And all of that, I think, comes out of this room.
“The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” is a sprawling three-hour work, set in the Greenwich Village apartment of Isaac’s Sidney and Brosnahan’s Iris, during a time of political, racial and sexual awakening in the early 1960s The “sign” is a campaign poster for a Reform candidate for local office (played by Andy Grotelueschen) who persuades Sidney to put it up, even though Sidney is only vaguely interested. And that ambivalence defines the play’s elusive anti-hero: Sidney’s impulses are benign, but he is slow to grasp the needs of others, especially Iris, an aspiring actress aspiring to feminist self-sufficiency.
“I still think it’s a play about marriage and commitment on a larger level,” said Kauffman, who first staged it in 2016 at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, where reviews ecstatics reignited a wider interest in the work. Reviews were mixed in 1964 when it opened on Broadway, a reception that perplexed Hansberry. “Hope you and Polly get to see the show,” Hansberry wrote to a friend some time after the reviews appeared. “It’s so much more entertaining than the critics try to make it out to be. And it’s very funny.
In a prologue to the published version of the play, Hansberry’s former husband, producer Robert Nemiroff, noted in April 1965, “These are, as far as I know, the last words she put to paper.
It may come as a surprise that “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” reflects Hansberry’s adult life more than the piece for which she is known. “A Raisin in the Sun”, which depicts the Youngers, a black family moving into a white Chicago neighborhood, contains elements of Hansberry’s childhood experiences with racism. But his family was better off financially than the Youngers. And the more complex issues she explored in “The Sign” — about existential fear of the nuclear age, about defending her politics, about our failure as a society to protect each other — came together. of its fundamental concerns.
“I like to call ‘The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window’ an answer piece,” said Gresham, Nemiroff’s daughter with his second wife, Jewell Gresham. “It was really kind of like, ‘I have to take the next step.’ The way she does that is to go in a completely different direction and write a completely different play with a completely different set of characters about a completely different time and crisis.
In “The Sign” we meet an array of characters who move in and out of Sidney and Iris’ apartment, including a gay writer (played by Glenn Fitzgerald) and a biracial political activist (Julian De Niro, son of Robert). The women in the play, Iris and her sisters, are all surprisingly varied and portrayed with compassion, including Iris’ older sister, Mavis, who married a wealthy businessman and holds bigoted views. Yet the playwright even grants Mavis moments of enlightened reflection – another indication of the extent of Hansberry’s insight.
“People meet her where Hansberry wants her to be met,” said Miriam Silverman, who is reprising the role of Mavis, which she first played at The Goodman. “Hansberry demands that we see Mavis in all her dimensions.”
The play didn’t land with a bang at the BAM, one of Broadway’s premier stages. The game, it seems, has always depended on the kindness of ardent supporters. Such had been the clamor to maintain the original Broadway production that strategy meetings were held at the homes of famous fans, such as Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks. Newspaper advertisements pleading with ticket buyers were taken down by the likes of James Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Shelly Winters and Sammy Davis Jr. performance.
After the Goodman Theater revival, Kauffman and others tried to find an outlet in New York, but it was still a hard sell. “We went around together, and we didn’t make it,” said David Binder, then commercial producer and now BAM’s art director. “So when I came to BAM in 2018, that was top of the list.”
The pandemic has created another obstacle. The casting of Isaac, who played both off-Broadway Hamlet and Poe Dameron in the Star Wars franchise, was a breakthrough following the return of live theater. “It’s a tough role,” Binder said of Sidney. “He can be charming, then he behaves like a complete a–.” Brosnahan was another major asset. The millennials who fill the Harvey are no doubt drawn in part to these familiar young stars.
All of this confirmed to Gresham that the time had come for Sidney – and for a fuller embrace of Hansberry.
“I talk about this as a millennial play, because they get into it and they completely get it. They laugh, they gasp, they respond to the play,” she said. “It’s alive and it’s contemporary, and there’s nothing stopping them from entering it.”
The sign in the window by Sidney Brustein, by Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Anne Kauffman. Until March 24 at the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn, NY bam.org.