Lorraine Hansberry will soon be remembered in Hell’s Kitchen with a new park — but last week Broadway legends and a who’s-who of industry greats gathered in Times Square to honor the barrier-breaking playwright and civil rights activist with a commemorative statue.
Hansberry, known as the trailblazing author of A Raisin in the Sun and the first Black woman to have her work produced on Broadway, was celebrated with a statue by acclaimed sculptor Alison Saar that will be displayed in Times Square (until Tuesday), followed by The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, and Brooklyn Bridge Park in DUMBO before embarking on a national tour. The statue will then be permanently installed in Chicago — Hansberry’s birthplace and the setting of A Raisin in the Sun.
Hell’s Kitchen will soon be home to a more permanent memorial, with a brand new NYC Parks plaza under construction named after the playwright, journalist, and activist on 10th Avenue between W48th and W49th Streets, a few blocks over from the Ethel Barrymore Theatre where Raisin premiered in 1959. The move came after some residents protested the renaming of Hell’s Kitchen Park after Hansberry without their consultation.
At the Times Square unveiling, keynote speaker and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage emphasized Hansberry’s impact on New York’s theatrical landscape. “Lorraine faced insurmountable obstacles to ensure that the stories of Black people were placed center stage,” she said.
“Her seminal play, A Raisin in the Sun, is one of the most read, produced, and important plays in the American canon and its focus on generational trauma and housing discrimination continues to have a tremendous resonance today. But what many people don’t know is that Hansberry was also an outspoken civil rights activist, a scholar, and a voice for the LGBTQIA+ community, and her glorious prescient voice emboldened generations of young women and not-so-young women like myself, who, because of her words, mustered the courage to put their own truths on the page,” she added.
The unveiling was presided over by The Lillys, an arts initiative founded by Julia Jordan, Marsha Norman, and Theresa Rebeck dedicated to promoting the work of and increasing representation of femme, non-binary, LGBTQIA+, and BIPOC writers, many of whom were honored later that evening in a showcase of their work at the New Victory Theater on W42nd Street. Tony Award-winning (and Tony-nominated) actress LaChanze performed Part of the Human Heart from Once on this Island as a musical tribute to Hansberry.
The statue by Alison Saar — entitled To Sit Awhile, a line from A Raisin in the Sun — is a way “to capture her strength and complexity as an artist and thinker, and to continue her mission to break down barriers across race and gender,” said Nottage. “Alison’s work invites us to do exactly that. To sit in communion with Lorraine and do what she did best, which was to think and dream.”
Hansberry, who died at the age of 34 of pancreatic cancer, accomplished an overwhelming magnitude of achievements in her too-short life. In addition to her career as a playwright, Hansberry was a prolific journalist and activist, working at the Harlem-based newspaper Freedom, advocating for civil rights in a sit-down with Robert F Kennedy and James Baldwin in 1963, and semi-anonymously contributing to The Ladder, a lesbian publication, to speak out on LGBTQIA+ rights.
In Times Square — where news was breaking that another great artist, Lena Horne, was receiving her long-overdue tribute in the form of a renamed Broadway Theater — Hansberry’s great-niece Taye Hansberry spoke on behalf of Lorraine’s 99-year old sister, Mamie. She read a statement on the dedication from Mamie reflecting on Lorraine’s continued artistic and civic relevance: “It will remind children and adults for generations to come of her work. Please know that my family and I are grateful for your love and efforts for your help, for our future writers, our future Lorraine, to have a voice — we feel so blessed that you have taken Lorraine Hansberry into history with art. She was a true artist. Nothing could be more fitting,” she said.