A new feature documentary directed, written and produced by Tracy Heather Strain, award-winning filmmaker and CAMD Professor of the Practice, debuts Friday, January 19 on American Masters on PBS. A 14-year long project, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart showcases the life of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the African-American Chicago native best known for authoring A Raisin in the Sun (which opened in 1959). This play, about a working-class African-American family’s experience in a Chicago suburb, brought national recognition to Hansberry as the first African-American woman to have a show produced on Broadway.
Strain was just a teenager when she discovered Hansberry, explaining to WBUR that her inspiration was born when her grandmother took her to a community playhouse production of To Be Young, Gifted and Black, a play about Hansberry created from her writings. She describes, “I’d never met anyone who had thoughts about class and race and gender similar to experiences [I had] as a child. It stayed with me.”
While to most, Hansberry is best known for A Raisin in the Sun, which even earned her a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, to Strain, there is so much more to the acclaimed author than this piece. The mission to showcase this was the driving force behind Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart.
As The New York Times explains in a recent article about Strain’s documentary, some of the depth behind Hansberry “includes her radical leftist politics as well as her struggle to identify publicly as a black lesbian in the 1950s and 1960s.” To that point, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart portrays Hansberry’s lifetime commitment to fighting injustice. It showcases how she embraced theatre as her medium for activism at a crucial time for the black civil rights movement, and also touches on the author’s concealed identity as a lesbian and the themes of sexual orientation and societal norms in her works. For Hansberry, theatre and the arts provided “a space where she could wage racial and gender battles and find resolutions that were more liberating than the law,” as The New York Times describes.
Strain’s documentary, which runs just about two hours long, is narrated by acclaimed actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson and features the voice of Tony Award-winning actress Anika Noni Rose. While it is making its wide release this Friday, it has its world premiere at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival last September, and has attracted attention and sparked much conversation since then. The press coverage alone surrounding the upcoming debut has been immense, and represents the anticipation surrounding its national television premiere this week. In addition to The New York Times and WBUR, the film is also featured in the Chicago Sun Times, in an article that helps us understand why it took Strain over a decade to tell Hansberry’s story.
Be sure to check your local listings and catch the documentary on American Masters this Friday.