Who’s Afraid of Absurdity?

A revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s last play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, captures its author’s wry rejection of political nihilism.

Alisa Solomon
April 25, 2023

Rachel Brosnahan and Oscar Isaac in the BAM production of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.

Julieta Cervantes

Within five short years of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 triumph on Broadway with her acclaimed breakout play A Raisin in the Sun, radical Black theater was surging downtown. The year 1964 saw premieres of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, a scorching one-act in which a seductive white woman provokes and murders a Black man on the subway, and Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro, a poetic, surreal journey into the storming psyche of a woman set adrift by anti-Blackness. But the play that Hansberry debuted that same year—not downtown but on Broadway—went in a different direction. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window—recently staged by director Anne Kauffman at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in a production moving to Broadway this week—centers on its title character, a white man who opens the play insisting that he wants nothing to do with politics anymore.

“I have lost the pretentions of the campus revolutionary,” he tells his friend Alden, who, at the play’s start, helps Sidney bring home crates of glassware from his belly-up nightspot, Walden’s Pond, where he’d hoped to attract patrons who wanted to hang out listening to folk records. Sidney’s new venture is an alternative weekly paper that he intends to keep neutral. “I no longer have the energy, the purity or the comprehension to ‘save the world,’” he says. Within the play’s first few minutes, Hansberry has etched a complex protagonist—a progressive who has lost his faith in progress, largely because he has cast himself as the world’s savior and would rather conclude that nothing can be changed than admit that politics are not all about him. As the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins recently put it, Sidney Brustein’s Window is “a shattering study of liberal self-delusion and whiteness as an existential crisis.”

More specifically, it is a study of male, Jewish whiteness. Sidney, after all, is a left-leaning secular Jew who can’t see past his own angst until a tragic turn toward the end of the play jolts him into clearer regard for others. Hansberry described him as the “corduroy-wearing chukka-booted, Bergman film-loving, non-cold water flat-living, New School lecture-attending, Washington Square concert-going, middle class and usually Jewish argument-loving” embodiment of “a certain kind of Greenwich Village intellectual as I have known him.”

Why—coming off the huge success of Raisin, with its indelible Black family, the Youngers, at its center—would Hansberry choose to focus her energy on a white guy in chukka boots obsessed with folk music? For starters, she was immersed in that world. A self-described “heterosexually married lesbian,” she moved to Bleecker Street in the early 1950s with her husband Bobby Nemiroff, a white Jewish communist songwriter (they divorced later, but remained close). She herself worked a day job for a while at the folk music magazine Sing Out, and her deep knowledge of the genre comes through in Sidney Brustein’s stage directions, which include elaborate descriptions of the records Sidney puts on throughout the play. Like all her plays, then—from Raisin to her lesser-known, unfinished works like the anti-colonialist drama Les BlancsSidney Brustein responded to the debates roiling the artistic communities, magazines, and radical movements she participated in.

In particular, the play presents a riposte to the white Jewish male writers in Hansberry’s milieu whose professed liberalism was becoming more and more solipsistic—and more openly racist. Some critics have taken Sidney to be modeled on Nemiroff, but he was more radically committed and attentive than his wife’s prickly protagonist. Her inspirations were more likely the self-involved Normans—Mailer and Podhoretz—with whom she sparred in the press throughout the early ’60s while she was working on the play. Hansberry was exasperated by their failures to recognize structural racism or to question the ethos of boot-strap individualism. In a 1961 Village Voice essay called “Genet, Mailer, and the New Paternalism,” she responds to Mailer’s ecstatic review of Jean Genet’s play The Blacks that had appeared a few weeks before. Mailer’s views, she writes, had already fostered a “life-eating sense of fatigue” among Black artists and intellectuals with his 1957 essay “The White Negro.” In it, Mailer urged liberal white men to become “hipsters” and emancipate themselves from materialism, endless self-examination, and political obligation by emulating the presumed hypersexuality and brutality of Black men. His remarks on Genet’s play, Hansberry contends, trafficked—like the play itself—in what she called “romantic racism”: a valorization of materially deprived African Americans as the only “true Negroes.”

Soon after, Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz—a liberal who was beginning a steep slide to the right—topped even Mailer’s political narcissism in “My Negro Problem—and Ours”—an essay in which he admitted to envying Black men for their masculinity, and to hating them because Black youth in his neighborhood had beaten him up when he was a boy. In a letter to the editor, Hansberry politely fumed: “The main impression gained from the article was that the world is changing and Mr. Podhoretz is agitated because it is so apparent that the liberal ought be saying and doing something; that he ought be stepping into the street to join the parade but that, as always, His Majesty has discovered that he hasn’t got a stitch on.”

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window points directly at that nakedness. The BAM production arrived amid an overdue swell of interest in Hansberry that has finally looked beyond her iconic status as the first Black woman to have a play on Broadway. This status elided almost everything else significant about her: her queerness and leftism, her sharp critiques of the mainstream civil rights movement, her experimentalism as a playwright, her struggles with depression. Hansberry herself was frustrated by Raisin’s glowing reception, considering it a “half victory.” She hated, for instance, how one reviewer praised the way its characters “come up with a song and hum their troubles away,” as though watching the play through a scrim of minstrelsy. Other critics celebrated Raisin’s depiction of characters who “just happen to be” Black, and still others reduced it to a plea for integration or twisted it into an instrument of moral uplift.

To do any of that, critics had to project flattening stereotypes onto the textured and ideologically diverse members of the Younger family and their friends, disregard the play’s discussion of class, ignore its searing indictment of racial capitalism, and pretend that when the family decides in the end to move into a white neighborhood, they will face no hostility. From her own experience Hansberry knew better: When she was eight, her family moved into a white neighborhood in Chicago and a white mob gathered at the house; someone threw a brick through a window, barely missing Hansberry’s head. In an early draft, the play closed with the Youngers sitting in their new home with guns at the ready. A blistering revival at the Public Theater earlier this season is the first production I have seen that captured this unsettled and unsettling spirit.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, the next Hansberry play to be staged, received a much more uneven reception from white and Black quarters alike, including many reviews tinged with surprise that Hansberry was treading on unexpected territory—where some thought she had no business. In Newsweek, Richard Gilman condescendingly complained of the “incredibly awkward” play’s “union of bitchiness with sentimentality” and bemoaned Hansberry’s transformation from a writer engaging proper self-judgment within the “small domestic compass” of Raisin into a “cocktail party shrew.” In a supposedly laudatory letter to the editor published by the New York Times, the playwright William Gibson (best known for The Miracle Worker) urged readers to see Hansberry’s play with the cringe-inducing commendation that with Sidney Brustein, Hansberry “was growing, from Negro playwright to playwright.” Up until the play’s opening, and possibly beyond, Hansberry was rewriting constantly, holed up in a hotel near the theater, suffering from pancreatic cancer and unable to attend rehearsals or previews. A campaign by friends and fellow artists drummed up audiences and they kept the show running for 101 performances, more than most non-musical plays that season. It closed two days before Hansberry died at age 34 in January 1965.

Sidney Brustein’s Window debuted on Broadway just two weeks after Fiddler on the Roof, which intoxicated Ashkenazi American Jews by delivering an origin story that dovetailed beautifully with the national myth, affirming a kind of essential synchrony between Jewish and liberal American values of religious freedom and tolerance. Sidney, effectively Tevye’s grandchild, presents a sobering critique of the limits of those values. As a leftist who had been mentored by W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, and who counted the radical writer-activists Claudia Jones and Alice Childress as comrades, Hansberry believed that Black liberation required changing “the basic organization of American society,” as she put it in a forum called “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash” a few months before the play opened. It was time, she asserted, for “the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” Her Sidney, a version of Mailer’s egotistical “hipster,” would come, painfully, to that same realization.

Set in the early ’60s, the play’s action unfolds in the cramped Greenwich Village apartment that Sidney (played in the BAM production by a smoldering Oscar Isaac) shares with his wife, Iris (a gauzy Rachel Brosnahan), an aspiring actor. Assorted neighbors, friends, and relatives drop by continuously to hatch plans, pick fights, and spill guts. In this production, the apartment, furnished with cheap lamps, DIY shelving, and a worn leather sofa, sits atop ten-foot stilts over a dark abyss, making the home seem at once grounded in the low-cost, high-traffic mishmosh of a vibrant urban landscape, and somehow adrift. A fire escape slants outside a window and expands into a metal canopy above the apartment: a rooftop refuge where Sidney strums his banjo and daydreams of living in rural bliss.

That Iris describes her upbringing in Oklahoma as something “to get the hell away from as fast as you could” hardly dents her husband’s fantasy of her as his “mountain girl.” She has sought cosmopolitan vitality, in part by marrying a Jewish intellectual, while he fetishizes her as the “Greco-Gaelic-Indian hillbilly” who fetches his beer. We meet them at a point when Iris has lost patience with his constant sniping and his flopping business schemes; most of all, she is bristling against his failure to really see her. Those intimate misperceptions—and every character in the play is revealed to harbor some—are shaped, Hansberry shows, by misogyny, racism, antisemitism, homophobia. A devotee of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and its analysis of the cultural construction of women as Other, Hansberry explores social conditioning—and the possibility of change—especially through Sidney and Iris’s faltering marriage. Just before the explosion of the women’s liberation movement, she dramatized how profoundly the personal is political—and, especially in Sidney’s case, vice versa.

None of the characters in the boho bonhomie around the Brustein home can match their trumpeted ideologies to their real-world behavior. Sidney’s Marxist friend Alton—Sidney calls him “NMSS,” “No More Since Stalin,” because he has left the Party—breaks things off with his beloved Gloria, Iris’s younger sister, when he learns she is a sex worker. In a riveting third-act speech, he explains to Sidney that, as a light-skinned Black man, “I am spawned from commodities—and their purchasers!” Rather than finding solidarity with a woman who herself has been used as a commodity, he insists, “I don’t want white men’s leavings.” Iris’s older sister, Mavis, an uptown conservative, tells Sidney, in another astonishing speech, how she tolerates her husband’s mistress and their child: “In this world there are two kinds of loneliness: with a man and without one. I picked. And, let’s face it, I cannot type.” Iris herself, having moved into her own place in the second act, takes a job peddling hair products she knows don’t work. Meanwhile, Wally O’Hara’s campaign as a reform candidate for local office pulls Sidney out of his scene-one disavowal of all political engagement; the titular sign in Sidney’s window urging support for O’Hara enjoins, “Wipe Out Bossism.” But soon after Wally wins in an upset, he is shown to be bought and paid for by the machine he claimed to be running against. Everyone’s professed commitments collapse under pressure.

As the play nears its end, Sidney confronts betrayal, disillusion, and loss—all of it magnified when Gloria commits suicide after the two share a late-night debauch. The tragedy shocks Sidney out of his self-absorption. At first exemplifying what Hansberry, in a New York Times essay about the play, called “the Western intellectual poised in hesitation before the flames of involvement,” he comes to see the impossibility of achieving meaningful change within existing structures, whether racial and economic justice via the city’s machine politics or a fulfilling partnership within the form of a traditional hetero marriage. Because he comes to this recognition only at the play’s end, we don’t see how he and Iris will—as he promises her in the curtain line—“make something strong of this sorrow.” But we know he has broken free of the Mailerian malady of what Hansberry called, in an article comparing her downtrodden protagonist Walter Younger to Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, the “vogue of despair.”

In addition to highlighting the play’s thrillingly ambitious investigation into oppressive systems of domestic, communal, and state relations, this season’s star-studded staging of Sidney Brustein has also revealed Hansberry’s grappling with aesthetic systems. She deplored the theater of the absurd trending in that same period for seeming to throw up its hands at the existential terrors of the world and thus deem pointless any effort to change things: For her, such work—by the likes of Genet, Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, and their avant-garde American followers—drove headlong into the same political cul-de-sac as the navel-gazing liberalism of the Normans, and it was little surprise that Mailer championed it.

The most prominent of these absurdist playwrights in the US at the time was Edward Albee; his Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woof? completed a smash two-year Broadway run a few months before The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window opened. Hansberry makes him something of a foil in her play, both by giving the Brusteins an upstairs neighbor, David, who is a gay avant-garde playwright, and by upcycling some elements of Albee’s style.

In Who’s Afraid, a bitter portrait of a marriage, a professor and his wife entertain a new colleague and his wife in their New England home, entangling the guests in vicious booze-fueled games through which their sustaining illusions shatter. In a climactic moment, the professor asserts that human thought and creation are meaningless in the end, with death coming as a vehement “up yours.” Perhaps as a reminder of her own clashing purpose as she was working on Sidney Brustein’s Window, Hansberry gave a draft the subtitle, “Up yours, Ed Albee.” In Sidney and Gloria’s late-night bacchanal, which David joins, the three drunkenly sing—to the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” or “. . . Virginia Woolf?” as Albee would have it—“Who’s afraid of absurdity?” as the lighting takes on an expressionistic red glow. “Not we, not we, not we!” In this moment, when all hell is breaking loose, Kauffman seats several actors who aren’t in the scene in front of the stage, where they observe like a silent chorus. Her direction highlights the way Hansberry seems to have found power in some of the formal disruptions of the avant-garde, while rejecting the abnegating sensibility that seemed to come with them. After all, unlike Albee’s characters, Sidney comes through the revelry of romantic despair and begins to take on, rather than shrug at, pain and cruelty.

Instead of surrendering to the absurdist idea that struggle is futile, Sidney comes to see the naked vanity of his immobilizing cynicism. “The world is about to crack right down the middle. We’ve gotta change—or fall in the crack,” he tells Iris’s older sister. It’s heartening to believe that it’s those cracks that let the light in, as the song goes; indeed, Hansberry calls for the play to end with “the clear light of morning fill[ing] the room,” and Kauffman’s production gorgeously complies.

For me, a different production decision—one not specified in Hansberry’s stage directions—served as an affective correlative to the play’s themes. It poured from BAM’s sound system during the intermission as part of the between-acts playlist: the ersatz Hebrew folk song “Eretz Zavat Chalav uDvash.” Extolling “the land flowing with milk and honey,” the song and its accompanying dance were composed by Eliyahu Gamliel, a major figure in the systematic invention of Israeli national culture. Just as unmistakable was the loamy and emphatic voice of this recording’s singer, Hansberry’s dear friend and comrade Nina Simone. “We never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together,” Simone famously said of their relationship. “It was always Marx, Lenin, and revolution—real girls’ talk.” In 1962, when Hebrew and Yiddish tunes were an unquestioned part of the folk repertoire, performed by Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, Miriam Makeba, and Paul Robeson, among others, Simone recorded this cover of “Eretz Zavat Chalav uDvash” featuring a propulsive walking bass line and a zestful darbouka solo.

Hearing it in this context recalled at once my youthful glee in bouncing along in the utopian hand-clapping circle dance at Jewish summer camp as well as my later indignation at discovering the deception of its cheery Biblical claim, its faux folk form, and everything those qualities represented. I felt simultaneously Sidney’s misguided early idealism and his crash at recognizing the calamitous consequences of his self-serving fantasies. At the same time, Simone’s rendition transported the tune into an alternative realm, one where its image of a beautiful world—a motivating metaphor—calls me out of despair and into the struggle.

Alisa Solomon is the author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, and of Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender and a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism.