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Archive for the ‘playwrights’ Category

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St. Louis, Mo.

Tennessee Williams home
4633 Westminster Place  (private)

Born in Mississippi, Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams (1911-1983) spent most of his childhood and young manhood in St. Louis, after his father, a shoe salesman, secured employment there. But Williams’ father often drank or gambled away his paycheck, forcing the family to live in a variety of crowded, rented rooms, moving a dozen times in just a few years. In 1921 a small, dark apartment on the third floor of this building was home. A rear window was blocked by a fire escape, allowing only minimal light into the rooms. Williams’ parents were openly hostile to each other, and his mother was increasingly unhappy to be so far removed from the genteel life she had known as a Southern minister’s daughter.

Williams set his first successful play, the autobiographical Glass Menagerie, here on Westminster Place, though the actual events he depicted in that play happened at a later time in another apartment in St. Louis (see below). According to Williams’ stage instructions, the building in which the Wingfields lived was “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population.” This building was later named “The Glass Menagerie Apartments,” in recognition of its place in theatrical history; in 2006, it was gutted, converted into luxury condos, with a starting price of $220,000 each, and renamed “The Tennessee.”

During his last years of high school, Williams and his family moved to five small rooms at 6254 Enright Avenue. Though Williams went off to the university in Columbia in 1929, he returned to the apartment for summers and to live in 1932, when his father could no longer afford to finance his education. It was events at this address that Williams depicted in The Glass Menagerie. His older sister, Rose, who suffered from phobias and hysteria and had twice been hospitalized, was living at home and retreating more and more into herself. The social call that is at the heart of The Glass Menagerie occurred in 1933, when Tennessee’s mother tried unsuccessfully to set Rose up with one of her son’s college friends. Williams’ younger brother, Dakin, later recalled that “the events of The Glass Menagerie are a virtually literal rendering of our family life at 6254 Enright Avenue.”

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Chicago, Ill.

Lorraine Hansberry homes and sites

5330 S. Calumet Avenue on the Southside of Chicago was the first home of playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965). Hansberry later described the black neighborhood as having “scrubbed porches that sag and look their danger. Dirty gray wood steps. And always a line of white and pink clothes scrubbed so well, waving in the dirty wind of the city.”

When Hansberry was a young child, her father, a prosperous businessman, moved his family to a middle-class white neighborhood of Chicago (6140 Rhodes Avenue), where their house was surrounded by an angry white mob and a brick thrown through the window. It was the difficulty of blacks seeking better housing in traditionally white neighborhoods that Hansberry placed at the center of her celebrated play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Raisin was the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway.

Hansberry was committed to the discussion of social injustice. After college, she moved to New York City, where she worked for Paul Robeson’s journal, Freedom, and studied African history with W. E. B. DuBois. Hansberry also became an ardent feminist. Though she married Robert Nemiroff in 1953, they separated amicably a few years later, when Hansberry began the process of coming out as a lesbian in Greenwich Village. A subscriber to the early lesbian magazine, The Ladder, she wrote several letters to the editor – signed “L.H.N.,” for Lorraine Hansberry Nemiroff in 1957 in support of lesbian rights and feminism.

Sadly, Hansberry died of cancer at the young age of 34, with plans for many more plays than she was able to write. Her contribution as an African-American woman to literature is recognized at the Lorraine Hansberry branch, Chicago Public Library, 4314 South Cottage Grove Avenue.

I’m glad as heck that you exist. You are obviously serious people and I feel that women, without wishing to foster any strict separatist notions, homo or hetero, indeed have a need for their own publications and organizations. Our problems, our experiences as women are profoundly unique as compared to the other half of the human race…. I feel that THE LADDER is a fine, elementary step in a rewarding direction.

–extract from Lorraine Hansberry [L.H.N.] letter to the editor, The Ladder, May 1957

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