Time, to the black American, has always been a burden. From 1619 to now, we have played out our drama before a reluctant time. We were either too late or too early. No people on earth, in all her history, has ever produced so many people so generally considered “ahead of their time.”
—Nikki Giovanni, “An Emotional View of Lorraine Hansberry,” 1979
When Lorraine Vivian Hansberry died on January 12, 1965, her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window was at the end of a three-month run at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre. It was the second play written by a black woman to appear on Broadway. The first was her groundbreaking drama A Raisin in the Sun. Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, the third, opened in 1976. Remembrances of Shange published last year, after her death, called for colored girls “the second play by an African American woman” to have a Broadway run. In writing my own remembrance of Shange, I nearly made the same mistake. We are prone to myopia when we remember, and it can make inconvenient details difficult to decipher. Jewell Handy Gresham-Nemiroff, in charge of Hansberry’s estate for fourteen years, wrote that Hansberry is “not really credited, to the extent deserved, with being Mother of the modern black drama.” The scholar Margaret Wilkerson called Hansberry one of the “major literary catalysts” of the Black Arts Movement. Both are true, yet The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which Hansberry worked on feverishly during hospital stays at the end of her life, is not a black drama.
Gabriel Dell played Sidney, a Jewish intellectual living in Greenwich Village during the Sixties. He flits like a mosquito between passion projects; for his latest, he has acquired an alt-weekly magazine and thrown his support behind a new local reform candidate. His young wife Iris, played by Rita Moreno, is a disillusioned aspiring actress. Their marriage stagnates, in part because Sidney exoticizes her mixed Greek, Irish and Cherokee heritage. A circle of friends and extended family surrounds the couple, including Iris’s sisters Mavis and Gloria. Frenetic, rapid-fire dialogue (“In order to do things, you have to do things!” Sidney says in Act One), and the scene-setting, nonstop whir of the city imbue the play with vitality. It’s a sprawling mass of ideas about political idealism and disillusionment, marriage and sexual attraction, ambition and thwarted dreams. “It is possible … that The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window attempts to say too much,” Lorraine’s friend James Baldwin wrote in his remembrance, “Sweet Lorraine.” The New York Times called it “uneven,” while the Chicago Tribune said it was “quite desperately dull.”
Kathleen Collins, the writer and filmmaker born a dozen years after Hansberry and one of the first American black women to write and direct a feature-length film, adored it. “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is a wonderful, an absolutely brilliant play,” Collins told Black Film Review in 1986. She marveled at the “wide range of experience” Hansberry was bold enough to capture. “Anything in life was accessible for her to write about.” In the same conversation, Collins called Hansberry “ahead of her time” and speculated that the playwright grew ill and died young because she didn’t know how to process success, which came early. Hansberry was only 29 when A Raisin in the Sun debuted. “It is not at all far-fetched,” Baldwin wrote, “to suspect that what she saw contributed to the strain which killed her, for the effort to which Lorraine was dedicated is more than enough to kill a man.” What level of fame or individual accomplishment can inoculate a black woman’s body from racism? Bodies of work are similarly at risk. In the case of Collins, her two feature films took great effort to produce and won acclaim on the independent film circuit. She died in 1988, at 46, like Hansberry, of cancer. Neither of her films had theatrical releases during her lifetime.
Part of the reason we have forgotten The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is because compared to A Raisin in the Sun, it is rarely performed. Rereading Sidney Brustein, I came to care for Iris, Mavis and Gloria, the play’s chorus, in whom the changes of the Sixties are refracted. I also found it odd and dated in places. Hansberry writes disdainfully of homosexuality, for example, suggesting the queerness of a minor character, the playwright David, is an immature indulgence. It’s also difficult to categorize—is it realist, absurdist or both?—which likely complicates the commercial case for mounting it. Despite these flaws, Sidney Brustein reads as a fiery revelation of an era that was, like ours, at a crossroads between destruction and rebirth. To experience theater on the stage is to preserve it, and preservation requires a consensus among gatekeepers and tastemakers. Kathleen Collins believed in Sidney Brustein, but she is gone. A revival, like any act of preservation, is a chorus in which only the living can perform.