Black Women on Broadway: The Duality of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and Ntozake Shange's for Colored Girls

Article excerpt

In her discussion of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Margaret Wilkerson poses some pertinent questions about the 1959 Broadway hit: "What accounts for the extraordinary appeal of A Raisin in the Sun? How has it transcended the racial parochialism of American audiences?" (441). Similarly, Andrea Benton Rushing asks of Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, first performed in 1975, "What is there about this young and formerly unknown playwright's presentation of black women which has galvanized both black and white audiences?" (539). Such questions bring to light the remarkable and unanticipated success of Hansberry and Shange, two "young and formerly unknown playwright{s}" from different generations, and the "universal" appeal of their respective Broadway plays. (1) More importantly, however, these questions point to a broader inquiry where critically and commercially successful "minority" texts are concerned. How does a play about a lower-class black family or a play about "colored girls" become "universal," critically (ac)claimed by (white) hegemony as successful? Can these theatrical representations of "ethnic" culture be "authentic" if they are also read as "universal"? And, furthermore, what are the implications of hegemony reading these "ethnic" plays as exclusively representative of ethnicity?

In order to address these questions, this essay examines the duality of Raisin and for colored girls as both "universal" American dramas and black feminist plays. (2) Although early critics read these plays as either one or the other, rendering the "universal" and the "particular" mutually exclusive, my reading suggests that duality was crucial, not only to the singular triumphs of these plays, but also to the memorable impact of the black female characters. (3) For just as each play engages with American culture through African American content, so also the respective female characters face trials and triumphs of femininity through their experiences as black women. The first part of this paper foregrounds and critiques the larger debate regarding the universality and ethnic particularity of these plays, ultimately pointing to both qualities as instrumental in their success. The second part of the paper narrows the focus to the female characters in Raisin and for colored girls--characters that signalled new and radical precedents where representations of "universal" femininity and representations of black womanhood were concerned.

Both Hansberry and Shange address such controversial issues as abortion, sexuality, and female empowerment while challenging obstacles like sexism, patriarchal ideology, and gender stereotypes. But in their exploration of broader women's issues and feminist thought, these playwrights clearly write as/about/to black women. Their pioneering engagements with subjects like abortion or their representations of gender stereotypes must also be read in the "particular" context of black womanhood. By stressing female agency, self-definition, and the "right to choose," these plays posit constructive models of "universal" femininity. They also, however, signify important sites of black feminism in the larger socio-historic context of patriarchal civil rights and black nationalist movements, as well as exclusive white feminist movements. By striking these balances between the "universal" and the "particular," Hansberry and Shange ultimately manage to target a specific contingent (like the "colored girls" of Shange's title) but appeal to audiences across racial and gender lines--thus making history on Broadway and claiming a place in the literary trajectory of African American women's drama.

Since I am advocating duality in these texts, it is necessary to mention what Robin Bernstein identifies as the unnecessary tension (or paradox) implemented by white critics between universality and particularity; the notion that Raisin, for example, must be "either universal or specifically black" (17). …


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