Hidden lesbian life of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ playwright Lorraine Hansberry explored in documentary

In 1957 — two years before she garnered national acclaim and became the first black playwright to win the coveted top award from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle for her work “A Raisin in the Sun” — Lorraine Hansberry launched a quiet, personal revolution.

The 27-year-old, who concealed her identity as a lesbian, penned an anonymous letter to the editors to The Ladder, the nation’s first subscription-based lesbian magazine and identified herself as a “heterosexually married lesbian.”

“I feel I am learning how to think all over again,” Hansberry wrote.

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Lorraine Hansberry leans over her typewriter in her Greenwich Village apartment on Bleecker Street during her April 1959 photoshoot for Vogue. Photo by David Attie.


Hansberry, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1965 at the age of 34, takes center stage in “American Masters – Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” the first in-depth look at her complex life.

The documentary will launch the 32nd season of PBS’ “American Masters” on January 19 at 9 p.m., PBS announced earlier this week.

The documentary will stream the following day via pbs.org/americanmasters and on PBS apps.

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Filmmaker and Peabody Award-winner Tracy Heather Strain (“Unnatural Causes,” “I’ll Make Me a World,” “American Experience: Building the Alaska Highway”) using Hanberry’s personal papers and archives, including home movies and rare photos, as source material.

American Masters – Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” showcases not only the writer’s lifetime commitment to fighting injustice, but also her talent of using art — the theater—as her medium for activism at a crucial time for black civil rights.


Family, friends and colleagues, including Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte, her sister Mamie Hansberry, Lloyd Richards, Amiri Baraka and Louis Gossett, Jr., share their personal memories of Hansberry.

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The documentary also explores her hidden identity as a lesbian and her use of sexual orientation and societal norms as themes in her works.

The film title comes from Hansberry’s view that “one cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world.”

Lorraine Hansberry holds hands and sings with singer Nina Simone and other activists at a pre-benefit gathering for the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee in June 1963 in the home of activist/singer/actor Theodore Bikel. Photo: Courtesy Lorraine Hansberry Properties Trust.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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