Off Broadway: Elegy for Lorraine

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At 28, Lorraine Hansberry was the youngest American playwright and the first Negro to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play of the Year Award, which she received for Raisin in the Sun. She died of cancer six years later in 1965, while her second Broadway play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, was running. To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which opened last week at Manhattan's Cherry Lane Theater, is a warm, loving tribute to her, put together from her own writings — journals, letters, snippets of plays.

It is also something of a milestone in the current white-black confrontation. It is suffused not only with hot anger at indignity and injustice but with a glowing concern for men and women as men and women. "There are no squares, sweetheart," one of the players says. "Everybody is his own hipster."

This aspect of Lorraine Hansberry's expanded humanity is enhanced by an interracial cast, in which whites as well as blacks speak for her in the first person — most notably bright, blonde Barbara Baxley and beautiful black Cicely Tyson. The production is necessarily episodic, fragmentary and uneven, but the cast, ably directed by Gene Frankel, works well as an ensemble to thread an elegiac mood through the range of comedy, rage, reminiscence and introspection. André Womble expertly manages a wide variety of black male parts, from an African nationalist to a run away slave; John Beal does equally well as the nigger-hating home owner of Raisin in the Sun and, in a scene from an un finished play, as a survivor of nuclear holocaust trying to teach some savage children what civilized man meant by beauty and music.

The evening is a moving reminder of how much the young, gifted and black Miss Hansberry is to be missed.