Shields’s biography of one of the twentieth century’s most admired playwrights examines the parts of Lorraine Hansberry’s life that have escaped public knowledge: the influence of her upper-class background, her fight for peace and nuclear disarmament, the reason why she embraced Communism during the Cold War, and her dependence on her white husband―her best friend, critic, and promoter. Many of the identity issues about class, sexuality, and race that she struggled with are relevant and urgent today.
... sparkling ... Shields has carefully sifted through not only Hansberry’s play scripts but a wide array of her personal correspondence, allowing him to focus attention on aspects of the playwright’s life analyzed less rigorously in previous scholarship. The biographer’s framing of Hansberry’s life history within its historical context is one of the strongest features of the book ... One of the most brilliant aspects of Shields’s study is its nuance, a tone that is possible primarily because of the author’s willingness to grapple with the inconsistencies and even contradictions he finds threaded through his subject’s life.
... an evenhanded and informative study that reveals truths about a woman whose complexities were largely erased from the public portrait she and her heirs fashioned ... Shields has not written a glitzy showbiz biography that takes readers behind the scenes of the theater world. In fact, the triumph of A Raisin in the Sun only takes up a couple of chapters near the end of the book, and Hansberry and the team that mounted the show—including her cheerleader husband, Bob Nemiroff—were Broadway outsiders. Instead, the story Shields tells is of a smart, reserved and gifted young woman from the Black upper class who applied her intelligence, and sometimes anger, to a quest for her authentic personal identity in midcentury America ... To paint the full landscape of the time and place that Hansberry inhabited, Shields often detours from the writer’s immediate story to place the many supporting players in context. These side trips are generally informative, although some seem extraneous and interrupt the flow of the main narrative. Shields raises interesting questions about others’ contributions to Hansberry’s work, but the answers remain largely unexplored. Overall, this equitable portrait of Hansberry is thoughtful and deftly rendered, a welcome corrective for the carefully curated and sanitized version that has long constituted fans’ received wisdom.
Shields follows the young playwright on her many journeys, from Chicago to Madison to Harlem to Greenwich Village and the Broadway stage. He convincingly argues that if Hansberry had not died at 34 in 1965 of pancreatic cancer, she would have been an 'elder spokesperson' in the LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter movements. He situates Hansberry among her contemporaries and traces her development as an artist and as a person, drawing on her private correspondence, her personal notes, and drafts of unpublished works. He also offers a rich chronicle of life on the South Side of Chicago, including background to the 1940 legal case, Hansberry v. Lee, that inspired her famous play, and describes her relationships with fellow artists. All who admire or are curious about Hansberry will cherish this bracing and fascinating analysis of a life cut short.