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“The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” and Lorraine Hansberry’s 1960s Greenwich Village

Many of us may daydream about being transported back to the bohemian Greenwich Village of the 1960s. Beyond our own imaginations, one particularly effective way to do that is via Lorraine Hansberry’s incisive play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, revived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from February 4 through March 24, 2023, the play’s first major New York revival since a 14-performance run in 1972. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is rife with eerily prescient themes and an insistence on activism that paint a stunning portrait of Hansberry’s transcendence as one of the most celebrated playwrights of the last century.

Cover of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964).

Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965) was born and raised on the segregated South Side of Chicago, but spent most of her adult life studying and writing in Greenwich Village. She arrived in New York City in 1951, after attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to take up residence in Harlem and entrench herself in local activism and further her writing career. During this period she joined the staff of the black newspaper Freedom, edited by Louis E. Burnham and published by Paul Robeson, where she worked with W. E. B. Du Bois. 

Lorraine Hansberry speaking at Washington Square Park rally, June 13, 1959.  Use courtesy of the Jewell Handy Gresham-Nemiroff Trust and Joi Gresham, LHLT.org.

Hansberry made her way to Greenwich Village in 1953 following her marriage to Robert Nemiroff, and it was at her home on Waverly Place (where Village Preservation placed a plaque in 2017) that she undertook her final years of writing. Her 1959 play A Raisin In the Sun (written while she was living in her prior residence on Bleecker Street) was the first play written by a black woman to be performed on Broadway. At 29 years old, Hansberry was the youngest American playwright to receive the New York Drama Circle Critics’ Award for Best Play. Needless to say, this young, queer, Black, female playwright left an indelible mark on American literature.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Hansberry’s second and final major work, is not nearly as well known as A Raisin in the Sun, which continues to be a fixture in American theater and American classrooms. Nevertheless, The Sign is a stunning expression of Hansberry’s worldview. Hansberry’s life was defined by her commitment to political causes and her unwavering belief that a satisfying life required one to act with courage against oppression. The Sign interrogates the nuance of this commitment, using the backdrop of the bohemian Greenwich Village of the 1960s to reckon with the personal and communal costs of such a belief.

Gabriel Dell, Rita Moreno, and Alice Ghostley in the Original Broadway production of The Sign. circa 1964.

The play premiered on Broadway in the fall of 1964 and ran for 101 performances until January 10, 1965, just two days before Hansberry’s untimely passing from pancreatic cancer. Though it certainly enjoyed its own success, The Sign was not as well-received as A Raisin in the Sun, thought to be due in part to its nature as a protest play centered around white characters, a departure from the groundbreaking focus on African American life of Hansberry’s previous work. Yet, despite this departure, The Sign is in many ways just as illustrative of Hansberry’s values.

The play is centered around Sidney Brunstein, a discouraged small-business owner, and his wife Iris, an aspiring actress, as they contend with their personal diverging desires and the emergence of moral, cultural, and social movements that transform their conceptions of allegiance. Hansberry notably places Greenwich Village at the center of these conflicts, using familiar facets of life in Greenwich Village such as stormy local politics and the burgeoning counter-cultural press as catalysts to the characters’ journeys. More than anything, though, The Sign shares Hansberry’s deep belief in humans’ ability to create change. James Baldwin, Hansberry’s friend and fellow Villager, shared the profound effect the play had on him, lamenting that “if [The Sign] cannot survive then we are in trouble, because it is about nothing less than our responsibility to ourselves and each other.”

Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan, stars of the 2023 BAM production of The Sign.

Just as she did in her own waking life, in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Hansberry crafts a complex notion of the evils of inaction, the seemingly-insurmountable chasm between who we are and who we thought we would be, and the social movements that shape us as we shape them in turn. If you can, make sure to check out a staged production of this often-overlooked play. And if you can’t, make sure to read the play to garner new insight into the Greenwich Village of the 1960s and Hansberry’s prophetic vision.

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