A brief, brilliant life gets a superb TV portrait

The upcoming "American Masters" (Friday, Jan. 19) is one of the best TV films I've seen in a long time. (And yes, I've seem a lot of TV.) It beautifully portrays the short, brilliant life of playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

Almost 60 years ago, theater producers were fretting about a landmark

“A Raisin in the
Sun” -- the first Broadway show written by a black woman -- was an
intensely realistic look at a family on Chicago's South Side.

“There was a
fear,” recalled Lou Gossett, then a 22-year-old in a supporting
role. “Mostly, a fear that started with the Schuberts (who owned
the theater) .... Who was going to understand it? Are people who buy
the tickets going to be insulted?”

As the first act
ended, he said, the audience was silent. “We thought we had

People had simply
been too emotional to react, he soon found. As the show ended, there
was a thunderous ovation. “That was a magic night.”

Hansberry would win
the Pulitzer Prize, become an instant New York celebrity ... then die
(at 34, of cancer) six years later, shortly after her second Broadway
show had failed.

however, lingers -- two Broadway revivals, a musical, a movie and two
TV movies. And now Hansberry's story is vividly told by PBS filmmaker
Tracy Heather Strain. “This is something I've wanted to do for
almost 40 years,” she said.

Strain was a
teen-ager in Harrisburg, Pa., when her grandmother announced they
were going to “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” a play molded from
Hansberry's essays.

“I don't know what
it was about Lorraine, but it was like a thunderbolt,” she
recalled. “Here was a young, black woman who had thought about the
same issues I had.”

Strain was
Harvard-bound; her grandmother had worked as a domestic. Both were
moved by the words of Hansberry – who grew up in a prosperous black
family and kept fighting for her neighbors.

Eventually, Strain
would dump her advertising/marketing major and switch to filmmaking.
She's worked on several “American Experience” documentaries and
started compiling a Hansberry film – gradually. “It's been a long
journey,” she said. “It's been 14 years.”

It took five years,
Strain said, to get an interview with Sidney Poitier, the original
“Raisin” star. She caught several key people (including director
Lloyd Richards) before their deaths. Others are still around, with
vivid memories of Hansberry.

“I always saw
sparks of that fire in her,” Gossett said. “It scared me from
time to time .... She was not easy to get to, so I just looked at her
as somebody quite brilliant.”

-- “American
Masters -- Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart”

-- 9 p.m. Friday,