'The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window' hurtles back to Broadway with more resonance than ever

The Tony Award-nominated team behind the Lorraine Hansberry show, up for Best Revival of a Play, reflects on its breakneck road to Broadway after 60 years away.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

A quick change in the theatre usually refers to costume swaps that happen in a flash. But the revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1964 play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, starring Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan through July 2, had a quick change of address.

Director Anne Kauffman’s production wrapped its scheduled run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 24, announced a surprise Broadway transfer on April 3, opened at the James Earl Jones Theatre on April 27, and was nominated for a Best Revival Tony Award on May 2. Whew!

Joi Gresham, the director of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust and a consulting producer, is thrilled about the whirlwind move and the recognition. “The Best Revival award, to me, is Lorraine’s award, and it would mean everything,” Gresham says. She credited BAM's exiting artistic director David Binder for assembling a “Broadway-worthy production” that let the show “move really, really quickly.”

Gresham became the head of the Hansberry Trust in 2006, and she’s been on a “mission to bring the play back to Broadway” ever since. Gresham has a “very personal relationship” with Sign, which also ran for five performances on Broadway in 1972. “I’m in love with every single character.”

Not that they’re easy to embrace – especially Sidney – in the story set in 1964 Greenwich Village. Until his 11th-hour wake-up call, Sidney’s lazy liberalism and noncommittal nearsightedness wreak personal and political havoc in his home and beyond.

Gresham acknowledges that Sidney “is full of contradictions that get in the way of his getting things done. He’s ridiculous. He’s immature. He takes up all the oxygen in the room,” she said. In the end, Sidney wakes up and is able to “take on his own activism and to make it real and to make it right.”

The character, she added, “was originally modeled after Lenny Bruce.” (Coincidentally, the prickly comedian shows up on Brosnahan’s hit TV series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.) “He was a kind of rainbow – from hard, cold, and edgy to soft, and tender.”

Sign has a timeless quality, according to Gresham. “This play is about our engagement and our commitment to life matters,” she says. “It’s about our willingness to participate and difficult conversations and the need to learn how to listen to another person’s point of view.”

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Miriam Silverman, a Best Featured Actress Tony nominee for playing Sidney’s prejudiced sister-in-law Mavis, can attest to that. She can also attest to the unprecedented nature of Sign's Broadway return. As the show was closing at BAM, she says, “There were murmurs about moving into Broadway, but none of us thought it was happening.”

Silverman was on a family getaway in Sweden when a flurry of text messages hinted the transfer was maybe yes, maybe no. A week later, it was on. “A few days later, we’re in rehearsal,” remembered Silverman. “It was really crazy.”

It was also exhilarating for the actress, who said Hansberry is one of her idols as a writer, “as political activist, as a thinker.” She first dove deep into Hansberry’s life when she portrayed Mavis in Kauffman’s 2016 staging in Chicago, the basis for the BAM and Broadway productions.

“I just fell in love with her, and it's a constant tragedy that she didn't get 50 more years,” Silverman said.

Hansberry died at age 34 in January 1965, two days after the three-month premiere run of Sign ended. By then, she'd made her name with A Raisin in the Sun, the landmark 1959 play that remains her most famous. While A Raisin in the Sun is a more traditional, well-made play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window “is a completely separate beast,” the actress said.

She added that it’s “sprawling and form-defying. It asks a lot of the audience to engage with it and process it.”

At BAM and on Broadway, Gresham has observed distinct generational reactions. Millennial and Gen Z audience members have been “more emotional” as they’ve talked about the play during intermission and at the end. Boomers, she says, have been quieter, as they try “to wrap their minds around how this corresponds to A Raisin in the Sun.”

No doubt the same thought process occurred during the 1964 run of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. When it posted a premature closing notice, celebrities including James Baldwin, Sammy Davis, and Paddy Chayefsky campaigned to save the show. Something similar happened earlier this season: Luminaries including Tyler Perry and Shonda Rhimes rallied to keep Jordan E. Cooper’s Best Play Tony nominee Ain’t No Mo' running.

Gresham says she and fellow producers have “talked about this. For me, it’s this full circle moment in my lifetime. This play is a play that is bigger than the critical reviews of it. It's bigger than the social specifics of it. It’s got a relevancy that you can almost plug into any time.”

Top image credit: Rachel Brosnahan and Oscar Isaac in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.
In-article image credit: Julian de Niro and Miriam Silverman in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. (Photos by Julieta Cervantes)

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