Houston Matters

Documentary Sheds New Light On The Playwright Behind ‘A Raisin In The Sun’

The film ‘Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart’ details some often-unknown facts of Lorraine Hansberry’s life.

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry
Playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

You're probably familiar with A Raisin in the Sun, the classic play – and later film – both starring Sidney Poitier. But maybe you're less familiar with the woman behind it – playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

Well, a new documentary aims to change that. The film, from the PBS series American Masters is called Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes | Feeling Heart, and it attempts to shed some light on some often-unknown aspects of Hansberry's life.

(The film airs Friday, Jan. 19, at 8:30 p.m. on Houston Public Media, TV 8.)

For instance, she was involved in some radical political activism and even joined the communist party. And Hansberry was a closeted lesbian, despite being married to publisher, songwriter, and political activist Robert Nemiroff.

Tracy Heather Strain and Randall MacLowry are the husband-and-wife team behind the film. Strain told Michael Hagerty that – in addition to those little-known facts of Hansberry's life – people often misunderstand her intent for A Raisin in the Sun. She says Hansberry saw the piece as a protest piece. While African-Americans relished the chance to see a more accurate portrayal of themselves onstage, other audiences didn't react to it the way she hoped – they identified with it almost too much.

Tracy Heather Strain and Randall MacLowry are the filmmakers behind the documentary “Sighted Eyes | Feeling Heart,” which sheds light on the life of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote “A Raisin in the Sun.”

"It was easy for people to think of it as being universal," Strain said.

In other words, people thought the African-American family depicted could have easily been their family – a family of Italian immigrants or any other group.

"They didn't pick up on the fact that it wasn't any family," Strain said. "Because the same things weren't necessarily happening to those other families in the society. So, it was kind of frustrating for her."

Hansberry only lived another six years after her play debuted. So Strain says she hopes these revelations challenge some of the conclusions people have often made about her.

"People are complex, and I think that trying to keep someone in the status of an icon – as someone just to sort of see as this one-hit wonder who's just down in the history books as a black first – it does a disservice," she said. "I hope that people will be more interested in reading the play now, and, if you've read it, you'll go back and look at it again or go see a performance again and see it all with new eyes."

Strain and MacLowry visited Houston for a screening and discussion of the film at the Houston Museum of African American Culture.