Editor’s note: During For Your Consideration Emmy season, television and streaming networks do presentations for the Television Academy, in the hopes that they get recognized for a nomination. We at The Los Angeles Blade wanted to shine attention on PBS’ “American Masters” documentary, “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart.”
While most people in the theater world know that Lorraine Hansberry wrote the riveting, Tony Awards-nominated play, “A Raisin in the Sun” (turned into a movie in 1961) very few people in mainstream culture know the playwright’s name and how much she fought for lesbian and African American rights.
In an exclusive interview, Los Angeles Blade talked with Michael Kantor, executive producer of “American Masters” and producer, director and writer, Tracy Heather Strain, about the first African American woman to produce a play on Broadway.
“Hansberry was an outspoken activist for civil rights and an artist who believed her words could change society,” said Kantor. “This film was a part of our Inspiring Woman campaign because Hansberry was a truly inspiring figure, and she still is today. ‘American Masters’ is proud to be a part of telling her story.”
Strain wanted to make an in-depth film about this incredibly inspiring woman because she felt that Hansberry was “unknown and misunderstood.”
“This seemed strange given that she died in 1965 at just age 34, having written what has become one of the most performed American plays,” said Strain. “Using a vast array of visual and archival imagery, I introduce Hansberry’s deep and bold commitment to social justice for a broad array of peoples, and her desire to use her words to change the world.”
Hansberry’s writing introduced black women characters who were intellectuals and militant fighters for civil rights, said Strain.
“She contributed a fiercely uncompromising radical perspective on social justice and racial and women’s equality in public debates, television, print and radio,” Strain said.
Though she was not able to publicly share her personal identity as a married lesbian in the 1950s and 1960s, Hansberry’s sophisticated thinking about the interconnections between racial, class and gender discrimination, and her private commitment to the rights and concerns of what is now referred to as the LGBTQIA community remains to many, a surprising revelation.
Strain did a lot of research to explore Hansberry’s challenges in being a lesbian at that time.
“I read about lesbian history, and then I talked to our scholars and advisors,” she said during a panel at The TV Critics Press Tour. “I read her diaries, and letters that she wrote to people and some of the letters that came back from other people that she sent to them, and it seems like it was a challenging thing.”
She continued: “It was a part of her life that she seemed to compartmentalize. The other people in her life were not aware, for the most part. Burt D’Lugoff, who was a friend of hers for a long time was aware, and a few other people. But as one of the people say in the documentary, she wasn’t very public about most of her life, but this part of her life, being a lesbian, was kept private.”
In her diaries, Hansberry talked about wanting love and finding a partner.
“She was lonely a lot. She wrote about feeling lonely, and she wanted to be in love. She wrote about that a lot in her diaries,” acknowledged Strain.
While Hansberry led a very public life, at heart, she was a very private person, which contributed to her loneliness.
“Margaret Wilkerson, who is writing a forthcoming biography about Hansberry, thinks it contributes to the brilliant work that we see from her, that she’s dealing with all of these different identities: African American, female, lesbian and so radical. I think it was a real struggle for her,” said Strain.