When I wrote that Lorraine Hansberry was a “one-hit wonder” (the hit, a big one, being “A Raisin in the Sun”), I was mindful of “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” assembled after her death by her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff. I also knew that I had not seen or read the second of her plays that made it to Broadway, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.” I knew that it had flopped, despite the efforts of admirers (including Ossie Davis and Shelly Winters).
Clearly, Sidney Brustein is based on Nemiroff, an engaged former communist working for social justice and change. Probably, Sidney is more naïve than Nemiroff. Sidney’s wife, Mavis (played by Rita Moreno) is not as much like Hansberry. She is an actress who avoids going to any casting calls and who ends the marriage, while retaining friendship.
I think her two sisters, each of whom appears briefly at the Greenwich Village apartment and has a conversation with Sidney. Both seem to me to have more insight into Mavis and into themselves than Mavis has. Iris, who has married someone with money, is not the dolt that Mavis and Sidney think she is. Gloria is a prostitute with considerable insight about prostitution and some insight about herself. She is bitterly disappointed. that the Brustein’s friend, Alton (a light-skinned Negro) is shocked to discover she has been a prostitute and breaks off their engagement.
There is also a gay neighbor, David, and a campaign for Wally, who eventually disappoints Sidney, who has worked hard on the campaign and warns Wally that his small newspaper is going to criticize him (speak truth to power).
(Gabriel Dell and Rita Moreno from the original production)
I think the play reads better than it could play. It is novelistic, though a couple of Sidney’s speeches should have been cut (down or altogether). I also think the (offstage) suicide is too melodramatic and would cut it, too. But the play is an interesting read
It has an incisive foreword from an unlikely source, British writer (The Room at the Top) John Braine. It also has a very long (38-page) supposed “introduction” by Nemiroff that recounts the effort to keep the play on Broadway as Hansberry was dying. It is totally useless as an introduction to the play, and, if included at all, should have been an appendix.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray