A Raisin in the Sun
|A Raisin in the Sun|
First-edition publication (Random House 1959)
|Written by||Lorraine Hansberry|
|Date premiered||March 11, 1959|
|Place premiered||Ethel Barrymore Theatre|
|Setting||South Side, Chicago|
A Raisin in the Sun is a play by Lorraine Hansberry that debuted on Broadway in 1959. The title comes from the poem "Harlem" (also known as "A Dream Deferred") by Langston Hughes. The story is based upon a black family's experiences in the Washington Park Subdivision of Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood.
Walter and Ruth Younger and their son Travis, along with Walter's mother Lena (Mama) and sister Beneatha, live in poverty in a dilapidated two-bedroom apartment on Chicago's south side. Walter is barely making a living as a limousine driver. Though Ruth is content with their lot, Walter is not and desperately wishes to become wealthy, to which end he plans to invest in a liquor store in partnership with Willy, a street-smart acquaintance of Walter's whom we never meet. At the beginning of the play, Mama is waiting for an insurance check for ten thousand dollars. Walter has a sense of entitlement to the money, but Mama has religious objections to alcohol and Beneatha has to remind him it is Mama's call how to spend it. Eventually Mama puts some of the money down on a new house, choosing an all-white neighborhood over a black one for the practical reason that it happens to be much cheaper. Later she relents and gives the rest of the money to Walter to invest with the provision that he reserve $3,000 for Beneatha's education. Walter passes the money on to Willy's naive sidekick Bobo, who gives it to Willy, who absconds with it, depriving Walter and Beneatha of their dreams, though not the Youngers of their new home. Meanwhile, Karl Lindner, a white representative of the neighborhood they plan to move to, makes a generous offer to buy them out. He wishes to avoid neighborhood tensions over interracial population, which to the three women's horror Walter prepares to accept as a solution to their financial setback. Lena says that while money was something they try to work for, they should never take it if it was a person's way of telling them they weren't fit to walk the same earth as them.
While all this is going on, Walter's character and direction in life are being defined for us by two different men: Beneatha's wealthy and educated boyfriend George Murchison, and Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian medical student at a Canadian university on a visit to America. Neither man is actively involved in the Youngers' financial ups and downs. George represents the "fully assimilated black man" who denies his African heritage with a "smarter than thou" attitude, which Beneatha finds disgusting, while dismissively mocking Walter's lack of money and education. Asagai patiently teaches Beneatha about her African heritage; he gives her thoughtfully useful gifts from Africa, while pointing out she is unwittingly assimilating herself into white ways. She straightens her hair, for example, which he characterizes as "mutilation."
When Beneatha becomes distraught at the loss of the money, she is upbraided by Joseph for her materialism. She eventually accepts his point of view that things will get better with a lot of effort, along with his proposal of marriage and his invitation to move with him to Nigeria to practice medicine.
Walter is oblivious to the stark contrast between George and Joseph: his pursuit of wealth can only be attained by liberating himself from Joseph's culture, to which he attributes his poverty, and rising to George's level, wherein he sees his salvation. To Walter, this is the American dream, which he pursues as fruitlessly as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, with the added handicap of being black in white America. But whereas Loman dies at the end of his story, Walter redeems himself and black pride at the end by changing his mind and not accepting the buyout offer, stating that they are proud of who they are and will try to be good neighbors. The play closes with the family leaving for their new but uncertain future.
All experiences in this play echo a lawsuit (Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940)), to which the Hansberry family was a party when they fought to have their day in court because a previous class action about racially motivated restrictive covenants (Burke v. Kleiman, 277 Ill. App. 519 (1934)) was similar to the case at hand. This case was held prior to the passage of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing and created the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. The Hansberrys won their right to be heard as a matter of due process of law in relation to the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court held that the Hansberry defendants were not bound by the Burke decision because the class of defendants in the respective cases had conflicting goals, and thus could not be considered to be the same class.
Interestingly, the plaintiff in the first action was Olive Ida Burke, who brought the suit on behalf of the property owner's association to enforce the racial restriction in 1934. Her husband, James Burke, was the person who sold the property to Carl Hansberry (Lorraine's father) when he changed his mind about the validity of the covenant. Mr. Burke's decision may have been motivated by the changing demographics of the neighborhood, but it was also influenced by the Depression. The demand for houses was so low among white buyers that Mr. Hansberry may have been the only prospective purchaser available.
Lorraine reflects upon the litigation in her book To Be Young, Gifted, and Black:
"25 years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation's ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house… My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court."
The Hansberry house, the red brick three-flat at 6140 S. Rhodes in Washington Park which they bought in 1937, was given landmark status by the Chicago City Council's Committee on Historical Landmarks Preservation in 2010. 
Production and reception
With a cast in which all but one minor character is African-American, A Raisin in the Sun was considered to be a risky investment, and it took over a year for producer Philip Rose to raise enough money to launch the play. After touring to positive reviews, it premiered on Broadway on March 11, 1959. Waiting for the curtain to rise on opening night, Hansberry and producer Phillip Rose did not expect the play to be a success, for it had already received mixed reviews from a preview audience the night before. Though it received popular and critical acclaim, reviewers argued about whether the play was "universal" or particular to African-American experiences. The New York Drama Critics' Circle named it the best play of 1959, and it ran for nearly two years and was produced on tour. A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, as well as the first play with a black director (Lloyd Richards) on Broadway.
Hansberry noted that it introduced details of black life to the overwhelmingly white Broadway audiences, while director Richards observed that it was the first play to which large numbers of blacks were drawn. The New York Times stated that A Raisin in the Sun "changed American theater forever."
In 1960 A Raisin In The Sun was nominated for four Tony Awards:
- Best Play - Written by Lorraine Hansberry; produced by Philip Rose, David J. Cogan
- Best Actor in Play - Sidney Poitier
- Best Actress in a Play - Claudia McNeil
- Best Direction of a Play - Lloyd Richards
In 1961, a film version of A Raisin in the Sun was released featuring its original Broadway cast of Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, Louis Gossett, Jr. and John Fiedler. Hansberry wrote the screenplay, and the film was directed by Daniel Petrie. It was released by Columbia Pictures and Ruby Dee won the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress. Both Poitier and McNeil were nominated for Golden Globe Awards, and Petrie received a special "Gary Cooper Award" at the Cannes Film Festival.
2008 TV film
In 2008, Sean Combs and Audra McDonald starred in a television film directed by Kenny Leon. The film debuted at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and was broadcast by ABC on February 25, 2008. Ms. McDonald received an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Ruth. According to Nielsen Media Research, the program was watched by 12.7 million viewers and ranked #9 in the ratings for the week ending March 2, 2008.
The 2010 Bruce Norris play Clybourne Park depicts the white family that sold the house to the Youngers. The first act takes place just after the events of Raisin in the Sun; the second act takes place 50 years later.
Season 1, Episode 3 of Strangers with Candy is based around a school production of A Raisin in the Sun, and features an excerpt from the 1961 movie as well as Stephen Colbert reciting "A Dream Deferred" just before the closing credits.
- Kamp, Allen R. "The History Behind Hansberry v. Lee," 20 U.S. Davis L. Rev. 481 (1987)
- "Lorraine Hansberry House". Chicago Landmarks. City of Chicago. Retrieved 5 May 2012.
- 'Robin Bernstein, "Inventing a Fishbowl: White Supremacy and the Critical Reception of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun," Modern Drama 42(1): 16-27.
- Corley, Cheryl, 'A Raisin in the Sun', Present at the Creation, National Public Radio, March 11, 2002
- Rich, Frank, Theater: 'Raisin in Sun,' Anniversary in Chicago, New York Times, October 5, 1983
- "Chenoweth, Dench, Linney, McDonald, Rashad Nominated for Emmy Awards". Playbill.
- New York Times Feb 25, 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/25/arts/television/25bell.html
- Brantley, Ben, "Good Defenses Make Good Neighbors," New York Times, Feb. 22, 2010.