The insurgent humanism of Lorraine Hansberry’s last play

Lorraine Hansberry, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, 1964, in a production directed by Anne Kauffman, 2023. Rehearsal view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, February 3, 2023. Iris Parodus Brustein (Rachel Brosnahan) and Sidney Brustein (Oscar Isaac). All photos: Julieta Cervantes.

A CRAMPED LIVING ROOM appears like a diorama of 1960s Greenwich Village bohemia, afloat in the engulfing expanse of the Harvey Theater’s stage. It contains all the warmth and ire and humanity that get bottled up in a typical New York apartment: a whole world unfolding with nowhere to go. The chasmic darkness of America waits just outside its cozily art-covered walls.

Incendiary optimism, depicted as a necessity in life and politics, suffuses Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964), which runs until March 24 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it is being staged by Anne Kauffman in its first major New York revival. (It wasn’t until 2016, in Kauffman’s earlier production at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, that Hansberry’s second and final play staged in her lifetime received widespread attention, having closed prematurely on Broadway on January 10, 1965—two days before its author died of pancreatic cancer at age thirty-four.) The play, as her collaborator and ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, wrote, sought to “realistically affirm the species.” It decries apathy and inaction even as it depicts this country as a network of Faustian bargains, swarming with reasons for succumbing to the absurd—and rebukes the theater that does.

Hansberry’s radical bona fides were plenty: She was a civil rights activist, a card-carrying Communist, and an anti-imperialist who advocated “every single means of struggle” for Black liberation—“legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and nonviolent.” Hansbury had her own FBI dossier and at the age of twenty-two had her passport confiscated by the State Department; she protested the murder of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on the eve of her wedding; and her version of “real girls’ talk,” per her friend Nina Simone, was discussing “Marx, Lenin, and revolution.” When she was ten years old, Hansberry’s father purchased a property in a white neighborhood of Chicago—leading to a battle against a racially restrictive covenant that escalated into the Supreme Court case Hansberry v. Lee. This experience with housing discrimination became the foundation of the canonized A Raisin in the Sun (1959)—the first play written by a Black woman to appear on Broadway. Amiri Baraka praised the drama as an act of “political agitation . . . dealing with the very same issues of democratic rights and equality that were being aired in the streets . . . not as abstractions” but “crafted meticulously from living social material.”

Indeed, Hansberry was a proponent of materialist theater, giving no quarter, in particular, to the midcentury avant-garde’s derealized visions of emptiness and “vogue of unmodified despair,” which she saw as antithetical to vital political engagement. She lambasted Jean Genet for his essentialism and fetishism of the oppressed, wrote Les Blancs (The Whites) in response to his The Blacks (as well as an unpublished parody of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot called The Arrival of Mr. Todog), and subtitled an earlier draft of Brustein’s Window “Up Yours, Ed Albee.” Perhaps it was that assuredness of her political convictions, in her organizing and polemicizing, that gave Hansberry room to make Brustein’s Window so fascinatingly murky and searching—even engaging in a brief dalliance with absurdism before a nascent call to action emerges from the void.

Lorraine Hansberry, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, 1964, in a production directed by Anne Kauffman, 2023. Rehearsal view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, February 3, 2023. Alton and Wally O’Hara (Julian De Niro and Andy Grotelueschen).

Despite mounting a defense of theatrical realism and adhering to its domestic trappings, Brustein’s Window was liberated from the nuclear-familial topos of the previous decade’s mainstream—much like the downtown New York intelligentsia it blithely vivisects. (Brustein’s Window came to life after Hansberry and Nemiroff had, for no lack of love, divorced; she was no longer, in her own words, a “heterosexually married lesbian.”) With its uncoded portrayals of pre-Stonewall queerness, racial acrimony and coalition, sex work, and depleted post-McCarthy pinko pride, the play tested the boundaries of Broadway audiences, even within its relatively traditional container. It feels just as surprising today, however, for the ways it eschews the pedagogic moralism that characterizes so much of contemporary performance.

The title character, played by a formidable Oscar Isaac, proves to be a cringingly timeless depiction of the expiring hipster. We meet the lapsed Communist turned entrepreneurial hobby-hopper in the midst of an extended third-life crisis, flailing around the Village after the collapse of his latest passion project—a folk-music club called Walden Pond. The play centers on his crumbling marriage to Iris (acted first by Rita Moreno on Broadway and here by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan), a politically aloof, perpetually aspiring actress exasperated by her life in the graveyard of Sidney’s half-finished endeavors.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window decries apathy and inaction even as it depicts this country as a network of Faustian bargains, swarming with reasons for succumbing to the absurd.

Until a last-minute genre switch—from shaggy, ahead-of-its-time hangout play to more strained tragedy in its final half hour—Brustein’s Window is driven less by plot than by a parade of characters representing the variegated ideologies commingling in their rarefied milieu. Each leaves spiritual and political impressions on our two protagonists with every visit to their apartment. We meet Sidney’s friend and would-be brother-in- law, Alton (Julian De Niro), a white-passing Black man whose revolutionary élan hasn’t shriveled like Sidney’s; Wally O’Hara (Andy Grotelueschen), a local reform politician whose roots may be less grassy than he lets on; Max (Raphael Nash Thompson), an artist who’s designed a LeWitt-ish, illegible cover for Sidney’s alternative newspaper, his latest unsound business venture; David (Glenn Fitzgerald), a gay absurdist playwright whose newest work takes place in a refrigerator and who represents the lure of nihilism; Mavis (Miriam Silverman, reprising the role she played in the Chicago production), Iris’s normie uptown sister who spews racism and anti- Semitism between bouts of eviscerating wisdom; and, eventually, Iris’s younger sister Gloria (Gus Birney), a “high fashion whore” in an otherwise “anti-sex society.”

Lorraine Hansberry, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, 1964, in a production directed by Anne Kauffman, 2023. Rehearsal view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, February 3, 2023. Mavis (Miriam Silverman).

Sidney tells Alton that he has “lost the pretensions of the campus revolutionary”; he no longer has “the energy, the purity or the comprehension to ‘save the world’” and vows his newspaper will be wholly apolitical. The many times his causes had been thwarted or fizzled out have led him to internalize the world’s anguish in the form of a chronic gastric ailment, rather than project it outward as action. “To get real big about it, I no longer even believe that ‘Spring’ must necessarily come at all,” he confesses. “Or that, if it does, it will bring forth anything more poetic or insurgent than—the winter’s dormant ulcers.”

Sidney’s ambivalence parallels his position as a Jew in 1960s New York, vulnerable to ambient anti-Semitism but more or less welcomed into the blinkered ease of whiteness. But Alton and Wally—and the prospect of resuscitating his sense of purpose with a new project—start to re-radicalize him. Sidney endorses Wally in his paper, displays his campaign sign in the play’s titular window, and eventually turns the home, much to Iris’s chagrin, into a “canvassing headquarters.” Like the pile of cups from his shuttered Thoreauvian honky-tonk, signs and phone calls from Sidney’s latest enterprise begin to close in on her.

Iris’s career has taken a back seat to her husband’s whims. She has existed within their relationship as, in part, a fetish object of backwoods authenticity, an embodiment of the rural idyll that ensorcelled young, romantically alienated urbanites like Sidney during the American folk-music revival (and the millennial revival of that revival, before imploding, courtesy of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, with the bathetic coup de grâce “Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my ma and pa”). Sidney pleads with her to wear her hair down and calls her “mountain girl” (despite her being from the famously flat Oklahoma) as he plucks his banjo at her. Tired of cosplaying herself, she proclaims, “All right, Sid, one of these days you’ve got to decide who you want—Margaret Mead or Barbry Allen [or, in the bam production, Joan Baez]. I won’t play both!”

Lorraine Hansberry, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, 1964, in a production directed by Anne Kauffman, 2023. Rehearsal view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, February 3, 2023. Iris Parodus Brustein (Rachel Brosnahan) and Sidney Brustein (Oscar Isaac). Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Isaac’s powerhouse performance captured his character’s contradictions, mining Sidney’s bigheartedness and soulful earnestness without softening his jaded acerbity and casual cruelty toward his wife (cruel enough, at moments, to elicit gasps from the audience). Brosnahan, in a more interior and less magnetic turn, lucidly portrayed Iris’s burnout in a world where she’s more imagined than seen. And with acute comic timing, a spectacular Silverman brought out Mavis’s fetid admixture of bigotry and moxie while eerily portending, in the character’s contempt for the “smugness” and insularity of bohemia, the contemporary Right’s rhetorical claims on free expression and the concerns of “ordinary people.”

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window requires a volcanic chemistry between the performers playing Sidney and Iris, despite their fatigue with each other; its dramatic arc hinges on our investment in them as a unit. Isaac and Brosnahan—neither far, here, from the demimondes graced by the outsize fictional talents of Llewyn Davis and Miriam “Midge” Maisel—were captivating and comfortable in their roles, but their connection sometimes felt too much like “good theater,” as though they were performing intimacy more than inhabiting it. Two cast members, De Niro and Birney, struggled to find the gravity and grounding necessary for characters whose doomed romance overtakes the drama in act 3.

Lorraine Hansberry, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, 1964, in a production directed by Anne Kauffman, 2023. Rehearsal view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, February 3, 2023. Gloria and Sidney Brustein (Gus Birney and Oscar Isaac).

Hansberry’s freewheeling and discursive script demands looseness, but there was a stagy formality to Kauffman’s production: When characters began to dance or sing, it often felt like the director had pressed the “fun” or “debauchery” button. The set design, with its stark contrast of contained human clutter against stretching negative space, presented something of a catch-22: While adding metaphorical depth, the apartment’s literal shallowness offered little room for actors to exist without seeming smooshed against the fourth wall, magnifying any slips into mannerism. At one point, Kauffman had Iris, Mavis, and Alton break away from the set, plop folding chairs at the front of the stage, and spectate passively as the play’s third-act tragedy unfolded. The choice, chillingly reminiscent of Mavis’s earlier gut-punch line about her family as a Greek chorus—“always there, commenting, watching . . . at the edge of life—not changing anything”—came at the cost of distracting from a crucial moment’s flow and action with allegorical gesture.

Yet these issues weren’t enough to stifle this play’s vitality, or its affirmation of Hansberry’s belief that “virtually every human being is dramatically interesting.” Kauffman certainly got Hansberry’s generosity, even at her most bitingly satirical, right. The playwright seldom feels the need to flatten even her more repellent characters into symbols. Or when they do become symbols, a single line suddenly returns them to flesh and complexity.

Hansberry is more concerned with the depiction of what happens to radical energy, even when it fails—and how to sustain it thereafter—than she is with her characters’ affirming her impassioned strain of Marxist humanism. Even the absurdist chimera David—part Albee, part Genet—makes persuasive arguments for a theater that fights the “stranglehold of Ibsenesque naturalism.” In a scene Hansberry referred to as an “absurdist orgy,” embraced to the point of silliness by Kauffman, three intoxicated characters in an evening careening toward tragedy chant, “Oh, who’s afraid of Absurdity! Absurdity! Absurdity! Who’s afraid of Absurdity! Not we!”—as though possessed by Albee’s 1962 Broadway hit. But in the aftermath, Hansberry returns to a message of galvanization despite, and through, devastation. No longer a dance with emptiness, this commitment to political action, and to life, is represented in the embrace of another person.

This review will appear in Artforum’s April issue.

Moze Halperin is a Brooklyn-based critic and playwright.


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