The untimely demises of Hansberry and “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” have always seemed intertwined, even as a decades-long effort has been carried out by theater artists and those overseeing her estate to give the neglected play its due. That struggle has resulted, at long last, in a starry New York revival of “The Sign” — one of Hansberry’s handful of plays — featuring Oscar Isaac (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”) as the drama’s flawed protagonist and Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) as his disenchanted wife.
The production may finally establish the play as central to Hansberry’s legacy and a vital entry in the American canon. “It’s existed until now largely under the shadow of ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ which is like an albatross around its neck,” said Joi Gresham, director of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust. “I never really understood why it couldn’t have its own air to breathe, in its own space.”
The breathing space it now occupies is the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where director Anne Kauffman, working with Gresham, is giving the play its breakout chance. (It officially opens Thursday night, with reviews embargoed until Monday because of covid cases in the cast.) The opportunity has proved critical, not only because “Raisin” put Hansberry on a reverent perch in the American pantheon but also because “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” is a stunning departure from her earlier triumph. It identifies an underappreciated range in Hansberry’s restless talent.
“If you only understand Hansberry as a civil rights playwright, you think: ‘What is this? What is this play?’” said Soyica Colbert, a professor of African American studies and performing arts at Georgetown University and the author of “Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry.”
“So you have to understand the fullness of her philosophical investments, the world she lived in, and that she was constantly straddling these positions of being a front-line activist and being in the American theater scene. And all of that, I think, comes out in this play.”
“The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” is a sprawling, three-hour work, set in the Greenwich Village apartment of Isaac’s Sidney and Brosnahan’s Iris, at a time in the early 1960s of political, racial and sexual awakening. The “sign” is a campaign poster for a reform candidate for local office (played by Andy Grotelueschen) who persuades Sidney to display it, even though Sidney is only vaguely interested. And that ambivalence defines the play’s elusive antihero: Sidney’s impulses are benign, but he is slow to grasp the needs of others, particularly Iris, an aspiring actress yearning for feminist self-sufficiency.
“I still think it’s a play about a marriage, and about commitment on a larger level,” said Kauffman, who first staged it in 2016 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where the ecstatic notices reignited wider interest in the work. Critics were mixed back in ’64 when it opened on Broadway, a reception that perplexed Hansberry. “I hope that you and Polly get to see the show,” Hansberry wrote to a friend some time after reviews appeared. “It’s ever so much more entertaining than the reviewers try to let on. And it’s very funny.”
In a prologue to the published version of the play, Hansberry’s widower, producer Robert Nemiroff, noted in April 1965, “These were so far as I know, the last words she put to paper.”
It may come as a surprise that “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” is more reflective of Hansberry’s adult life than the play she’s known for. “A Raisin in the Sun,” which depicts the Youngers, a Black family integrating a White Chicago neighborhood, contains elements of Hansberry’s childhood experiences with racism. But her family was more financially comfortable than the Youngers. And the more complex issues she explored in “The Sign” — about the existential dread of the nuclear age, about standing up for one’s politics, about our failure as a society to look out for one another — ran closer to her core concerns.
“I like to call ‘The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window’ a response play,” said Gresham, Nemiroff’s daughter with his second wife, Jewell Gresham. “It really was sort of like, ‘I’ve got to take the next step.’ The way she does it is to go in a completely different direction and to write a completely different play with a completely different set of characters about a completely different time and crisis.”
One encounters in “The Sign” an array of characters who shuttle in and out of Sidney and Iris’s flat, including a gay writer (played by Glenn Fitzgerald) and a biracial political activist (Julian De Niro, son of Robert). The women in the play, Iris and her sisters, are all strikingly varied and compassionately rendered, including Iris’s older sister, Mavis, who has married a rich businessman and holds bigoted views. Yet the playwright even accords Mavis moments of enlightened thought — another indication of the breadth of Hansberry’s insight.
“People are meeting her where Hansberry wants her to be met,” said Miriam Silverman, who reprises the role of Mavis, which she first played at the Goodman. “Hansberry is demanding that we see Mavis in all of her dimensions.”
The play did not land meteorically at BAM, one of off-Broadway’s premier stages. The play, it seems, has always depended on the kindness of ardent supporters. Such had been the clamor to keep the original Broadway production going that strategy meetings were organized in the homes of famous fans, such as Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks. Newspaper ads imploring ticket buyers were taken out by the likes of James Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Shelly Winters and Sammy Davis Jr. And on one astonishing evening, Nemiroff wrote in that 1965 prologue, collection plates were passed in the audience at the end of a performance.
After the Goodman Theatre revival, Kauffman and others tried to find a New York outlet, but it was still a tough sell. “We shopped it around together, and we were not successful,” said David Binder, then a commercial producer and now BAM’s artistic director. “So when I got to BAM in 2018, this was top of the list.”
The pandemic threw up another hurdle. The casting of Isaac, who has played both Hamlet off-Broadway and Poe Dameron in the Star Wars franchise was one breakthrough after live theater returned. “It’s a challenging role,” Binder said of Sidney. “He can be charming, and then he behaves like a complete a–.” Brosnahan was another major get. The millennials filling the Harvey are no doubt attracted in part by these familiar, younger stars.
All of which has confirmed for Gresham that the time has come for Sidney — and for a fuller embrace of Hansberry.
“I’m talking about this as a millennial play, because they come into it and they completely get it. They’re laughing, they’re gasping, they’re talking back to the play,” she said. “It’s alive and it’s contemporary, and nothing holds them back from entering into it.”
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, by Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Anne Kauffman. Through March 24 at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y. bam.org.