The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window
The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window

The Sign Offers New Perspective on Lorraine Hansberry’s Legacy

In late October 1964, an ad ran in The New York Times entitled “An Open Letter: First-Rate Theatre Belongs on Broadway.” The letter was signed by a group that included James Baldwin, Paddy Chayefsky, Sammy Davis, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Lillian Hellman. They were calling attention to a play that was facing a premature closure—a powerful play that they believed in so wholeheartedly, they pooled their money to buy an ad in hopes of urging the public to buy tickets. The play in need of saving? Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.

“The news that Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window faces closing should disturb all who love theatre. Miss Hansberry’s new play is a work of distinction. It contains the humor and insight we associate with the finest traditions of our stage, and it is written with profound respect for the human condition. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is concerned with the turbulent life of our times. It is, in turn, powerful, tender, moving, and hilarious. Whether it survives or closes will be determined this week.… We the undersigned, who believe in it enough to pay for this ad, urge you to see it now.

Just a few years earlier, in 1959, Hansberry had soared to prominence with her play A Raisin in the Sun. Its premiere on Broadway marked the first time a play written by a Black woman was produced on Broadway. It ran for 19 months and garnered four Tony Award nominations. After The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window’s opening night, the production was looking at a much shorter run—a week, to be exact—due to mixed reviews from critics.

The play follows a couple in 1960s New York City’s Greenwich Village. Hansberry crafted “a razor-sharp portrait of a diverse group of friends whose progressive dreams can’t quite match reality. At the center are Sidney and Iris Brustein, fighting to see if their marriage—with all its crackling wit, passion, and petty cruelty—can survive Sidney’s ideals.”

Unlike the critics, many audience members were moved by the deep and complex themes that Hansberry explored in the play. Campaigns began popping up to save the show and “keep the sign hanging in Sidney’s window a little longer.” As more members of the community began to see it, the outpouring of support continued to flow, including more written ads, phone calls, and even impassioned post-show speeches from fellow casts of Broadway shows.

Thanks to the generosity and enthusiasm drummed up from the campaigns, the play lasted 101 performances across two Broadway theatres (the Longacre Theatre and Henry Miller’s Theatre), playing its final performance on January 10, 1965, two days before Hansberry passed away. Beginning February 4, this generation of New York audiences will get to witness the first-rate play during its first major New York revival, starring Emmy winner Rachel Brosnahan and Golden Globe winner Oscar Isaac, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

David Binder, Tony-winning producer and BAM’s artistic director, became enchanted with Hansberry after witnessing A Raisin in the Sun at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1999. He became committed to producing the first Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun, which came to be in 2004, starring Sean Combs, Tony nominee Sanaa Lathan, Tony winner Audra McDonald, and Tony winner Phylicia Rashad. It was during that time that Binder discovered The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. He was immediately drawn to the script and again committed to producing a revival of an important Hansberry play. The BAM production is bringing his decade-long vision to life.

“Lorraine was so engaged politically,” says Binder. “She is so special—to me and so many people. She was a writer, but also an activist, a lesbian, and just an extraordinary person.”

The production is directed by Anne Kauffman, who directed a version in 2016 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. She first learned of it while she was in college, and was “completely taken by the play” when she rediscovered it as a faculty member at New York University.

“Lorraine was incredibly prolific,” said Kauffman when directing the play in 2016. “This is one of the great American plays — a play that Hansberry was incredibly passionate about, incredibly important to her, and it needs to be a part of the canon.”

Now, as the play returns to the New York stage nearly 60 years after its Broadway premiere, audiences will experience this timeless masterpiece that offers a new perspective on Hansberry’s legacy as well as a mirror to society.

“This play was so of the time, but it also speaks to today,” says Binder. “In both times we are seeing incredible change taking place. We as audience members want to figure out how to make our way in these turbulent times.”

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