Seattle Rep’s very own Literary Director and Dramaturg Kristin Leahey had the opportunity of a lifetime when she was invited by the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust to visit Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. There, she spent three intense days studying Lorraine Hansberry’s early drafts of A Raisin in the Sun, not to mention her extensive literary archive including her personal letters, her yearbooks, even her FBI file. Communications Director Rowena Yow chats with Kristin about her incredible experience and gets a deep-dive into who Lorraine Hansberry – playwright, activist, trailblazer – really was.
RY: So you arrived in New York, city of lights and stage, and you journeyed up to the Schomburg Center where the Hansberry materials are stored. Harlem’s an amazing microcosm of New York City. What was the area like? What was the Center like?
KL: It was really exciting to be at the Schomburg, as it’s a major cultural institution in the heart of Harlem. Particularly because it was summer, it is a very active time of year in the area with the large hospital across from the center, restaurants, bars, and stores. It’s a bustling part of the city, but it still feels like a neighborhood. I think that’s very true to the staff and everyone I worked with at the center. There’s a real sense of family and the mentorship of the next generation of archivists.
The archival area itself is amazing. You could research primary sources from the Black Panthers, Langston Hughes, and so many other collections of major figures, places, and groups from the African American Diaspora. The collection is an immense receptacle of significant history, ideas, and culture. Researchers have the rare opportunity to handle material that is revered and sacred.
RY: How were you given the Hansberry materials to look over? How many boxes did you receive?
KL: The Schomburg archive has created a finding aid, which is basically a table of contents of what’s contained in the collection boxes – this is how most archives are organized. Two months in advance of my visit, I reserved boxes relating to Lorraine Hansberry, including her personal and professional affairs, the screenplay of A Raisin in the Sun – everything that I was looking forward to reviewing. Once I arrived at the center, you check all your personal items, such as bags, pens, etc. You enter the library with pretty much just your laptop and that’s it.
You’re only allowed to check out one box at a time; you look through a folder, mark what’s interesting, what should be copied, and you move to another box. There are about 90-100 boxes in the Hansberry collection, and I looked at about 50-60 of them. The archivists were very kind to also let me request more as I was making discoveries.
RY: What was your intention going into this process?
KL: I had three goals when looking over Hansberry’s materials: One was to get a greater sense of what she was feeling and thinking at the time she wrote Raisin and when it went into production. Two was to take a look at the actual physical drafts of the play to see how it could inform Seattle Rep’s production. Three was for dramaturgical research during our rehearsal process.
RY: Talk to me about your research process!
KL: When I’m researching in an archive, I often start very slowly. I scan through every piece, looking to see what could be a strong find. I began by examining Hansberry’s personal trajectory – what led her to write Raisin and the process of how she went through the writing of drafts, and eventually working on the text in previews and out-of-town runs of the show.
I reviewed photos, drafts with her notes written on them, telegrams, letters personal effects, pieces of scribbled scratch paper, her FBI file, essentially everything that’s been amassed by the trust. All the different plays, teleplays, screenplays, adaptations, collateral after she passed away, programs from shows that played after her death, letters from fans, family letters, treatises she wrote on the civil rights movement, etc.
RY: Was she personally very good at keeping track of her files and papers?
KL: She was exceptionally good. And her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, was able to collect all of this material and his second wife oversaw the literary trust, and finally, now, their daughter, Joi Gresham, does, so it’s very much a family affair. To me, this was one of the most rigorous and easily accessible archives I’ve explored. Everything was so clearly laid out and labeled.
RY: What immediately struck you about Hansberry’s materials?
KL: Hansberry’s literary voices carries through all her written materials. Her voice is always at such a high-level – flowing, intelligent, marked by eloquent syntax.
RY: So that really explains her script then – her fierce and intense nature.
KL: Very much so. She had such a social consciousness and empathy. You could feel her love in her writing: for art, her husband, friends, and her various other relationships. And she chronicled a lot of her fears about being a writer, her inadequacies; she’s a true artist.
But still, I think Lorraine knew the impact Raisin would have. She must have thought: “Either this is going to be a complete failure, or it’s going to change history.”
RY: And it continues to change and affect history. So, during this process, what pieces in her collection most stood out?
KL: There is this beautiful letter that she wrote to her mother, just before opening Raisin in New Haven, about her trepidation but also the possible potential of the show and how it was a true reflection of an African American family in Chicago.
Additionally, what she was removing and altering in early drafts was fascinating. She tended to cut chunks instead of just words. She was so meticulous in terms of her selection of language. She typed her scripts, so you could see the error marks when she deleted whole sections.
Her letters to her husband were also interesting; they had a professional and personal relationship, which they thoughtfully balanced. Also, some of her politically motivated work was intriguing – she kept programs from lectures and town halls, articles she’d written, etc. She was a forerunner of and active in the Civil Rights Movement.
Her yearbook from her high school Jones College Prep was a delightful find. She was really interested in drama, so she had notes about all the people in her drama club.
RY: Has your perception of Hansberry changed after this experience?
KL: Completely. The whole experience was transformative. I learned more about her imprint as an artist and how she was feeling while writing A Raisin in the Sun. I gleaned a sense of the people she was encountering and the events that altered her course and her impact on others’. The process of going from the archive to the drafts was extraordinarily helpful. I now have a better understanding of Hansberry’s methodology, terminology, and influence.
Stay tuned for Part II in which we talk with both Kristin and Seattle Rep’s A Raisin in the Sun director Timothy McCuen Piggee on how Lorraine Hansberry’s original drafts have informed our production of this incredible play!