On This Day: “A Raisin in the Sun” debuts on Broadway

Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the first Broadway play written by a Black woman, opens at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York on March 11, 1959.

Taking its title from the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem,” Hansberry’s story follows a working-class Black family from the South Side of Chicago hoping to improve their lives. Raised herself on Chicago’s South Side, Hansberry’s parents were racial justice activists, and A Raisin in the Sun was inspired by her life.

It was also the first Broadway show to feature a Black director, Lloyd Richards, and its stars included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Louis Gossett.

The New York Drama Critics Circle Award named “Raisin” the best American play in 1959 and it received four Tony Award nominations for best play, best direction and best performances for Poitier and McNeil. It ran for 530 performances until it closed in 1960, and was adapted for the big screen in 1961, with Hansberry writing the script. Broadway revivals took place in 2004 and 2014 and the play is credited with bringing Black audiences to the stage.

“Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage,” James Baldwin later wrote of the production. “Black people had ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them.”

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