When Los Angeles-based artist Alison Saar was commissioned just over four years ago to sculpt a statue of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, she had only one thought: “Am I the right person to this work ?
“I don’t really work with likenesses,” said Saar, 66, whose works focus on the African diaspora and black female identity. “But they said, ‘No, no, we want this to be more of a portrayal of her passion and who she was beyond a playwright. “”
The request had come from Lynn Nottage, the two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright, as part of an initiative she was developing with Julia Jordan, the executive director of the Lilly Awards, which recognize the work of women in theatre. The Lorraine Hansberry initiative was designed to honor Hansberry, who was the first black woman to see a show produced on Broadway.
“She’s part of my core DNA as an artist,” Nottage said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Throughout my career, if I needed to turn to structure, storytelling, or inspiration, I could go to ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ that perfect piece of literature.”
The statue, a life-size likeness of Hansberry surrounded by five movable bronze chairs that represent aspects of her life and, Saar said, invites people “to sit down and think with her,” will be unveiled in Times Square on June 9. the event will include performances and remarks from Nottage and Hansberry’s 99-year-old older sister, Mamie Hansberry. It will remain in Times Square until June 12, then begin a tour of the country over the next year en route to its permanent home in Chicago, Hansberry’s birthplace.
But, Nottage said, they also wanted a more forward-looking way to honor Hansberry, which led to the second component of the initiative: a scholarship to cover living expenses for two female graduate or non-binary student writers. of color that create for stage, television or film. Starting next year, the $2.5 million scholarship fund will offer its first recipients $25,000 a year, typically for up to three years — the typical length of a scholarship program. graduate studies. (LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her role as Lena Younger in the 2014 Broadway revival of “Raisin,” the Dramatists Guild and the National Endowment for the Arts are among early donors.)
“So many graduate programs for writers at elite institutions like Juilliard, Yale and Brown are now offering free tuition,” Nottage said, “but you see people not taking up space because they don’t cannot afford to take three years off to pay for rent, computers, food and travel, which could cost an average of $15,000 to $35,000 a year.
“It would have made a huge difference to me,” Nottage said of the scholarship fund. “When I was at Yale School of Drama, one of the actors told me I could get public assistance for groceries and electricity, and when I showed up at New Haven Social Services my financial aid package — I was on work-study — they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re living below the poverty line.’ »
Hansberry, who was just 34 when she died of pancreatic cancer in 1965, is best known for “Raisin,” a semi-autobiographical family drama that tells the story of an African-American family living racially segregated in South Chicago. The play, which opened on Broadway in 1959 with Sidney Poitier in the cast, would go on to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play, making Hansberry, at 29, the youngest American and first black person to receive the price.
Hansberry was also active in political and social movements, including the civil rights struggle, regularly writing about racial, economic, and gender inequality for the black newspaper Freedom. She also wrote letters signed “LHN” or “LN”—for Lorraine Hansberry Nemiroff (her husband’s last name)—to The Ladder, a monthly national lesbian publication. In these letters, she struggled with the issues she faced as a lesbian in a heterosexual marriage and the pressure on some lesbians to conform to a more feminine dress code.
Her older sister, Mamie, recalls that Lorraine was bookish from a young age. Their parents allowed them to sit on the veranda during visits from eminent personalities, such as the poet Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, the singer, actor and activist. “Dad wanted us to be able to listen to some of the distinguished people who came to the house,” she said.
Lorraine Hansberry used to write letters to members of Congress — “My mom found them when she was cleaning her room,” Grandma Hansberry said. “She was free to write anyone,” Mamie said, “and they would respond!”
It is this spirit that Nottage and Jordan have said they hope to cultivate in the next generation of playwrights. The statue tour will begin with stops at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem (June 13-18) and Brooklyn Bridge Park (June 23-29) before traveling to cities including Atlanta, Detroit and Los Angeles. There are also plans to make stops at historically black colleges and universities, including Spelman College in Atlanta and Howard University in Washington.
Jordan said the initiative will also work with local theaters and artists to showcase Hansberry’s work, as well as the work of contemporary writers of color, in conjunction with the placement of the sculpture. New 42, the nonprofit organization behind the New Victory Theatre, has also created a resource guide for teaching students at Hansberry and “Raisin” middle and high schools, which will be free for schools and organizations.
“I think if Hansberry had continued to write and grow as an activist, one of the things she would have done was amplify the voices of other women of color,” Nottage said.
Jordan said she and Nottage have already raised $2.2 million of their $3.5 million goal for the statue’s construction costs, tour and scholarship fund. By 2025, Jordan said, they plan to support a total of six playwrights per year.
“Everyone wants to produce these women,” Nottage said. “But we want to make sure people are prepared – that they’re safe in their voice and safe in their craft – so they don’t fail when given the chance.”