A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, American (1930-1965)
I have just finished reading one of the most poignant, heartrending, and honest plays ever written by an American playwright: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. It is the story of an American family’s courageous struggle against racial discrimination in post-World War II Chicago.
When the play opens, we meet the Younger family: the elderly Lena Younger, her daughter Beneatha, son Walter Lee, Walter Lee’s wife Ruth, and their young son Travis. They all share a clean but cramped apartment, filled with worn-out furniture. We learn that Lena, a widow in her 60’s, is waiting for her husband’s $10,000 life insurance check. The excitement builds as each family member tries to influence Lena on how to spend her money.
Walter Lee needs the money to invest in a liquor store with his two friends Willie and Bobo.
“This morning, I was lookin’ in the mirror and thinking about it…. I’m thirty-five years old; I been married eleven years and I got a boy who sleeps in the living room–and all I got to give him is stories about how rich white people live….”
Beneatha, Walter’s sister, wants to become a doctor, but Walter has other ideas. “Who the hell told you you had to be a doctor? If you so crazy ’bout messing ’round with sick people–then go be a nurse like other women–or just get married and be quiet….”
Meanwhile, Lena has plans. She has dreamt of buying a little house in Morgan Park.
“…and fixing it up and making me a little garden in the back. And didn’t none of it happen…. Seem like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams–but he did give us children to make them dreams seem worthwhile.”
And Ruth, Walter Lee’s wife? She is exhausted from hard work, listening to her husband’s complaints, and her pregnancy, of which she has not told Walter Lee.
As the play progresses, the tension builds between the family members until Lena decides to put a $3,500 deposit on a house in Clybourne Park, a predominantly white neighborhood. She entrusts the rest of the money to Walter Lee for Beneatha’s education and some business capital for himself. However, Walter decides to invest the $6,500 in his liquor store, but, in an unfortunate turn of events, his friend steals the money and runs. Meanwhile, the plot reaches fever pitch when Mr. Lindner, a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, visits the family. His mission? Tell the Younger’s that the “welcoming committee” will buy their new house “at a financial gain” to them. He adds, “Our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities” and “race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it.”
Here is the central theme of the play: Does a respectable family, regardless of race, have the right to live where they wish, even though it might “upset” their neighbors? You may wonder why Lorraine Hansberry wrote this controversial play before the 1960’s Civil Rights movement. Her parents struggled against the same prejudices and segregation when they bought a house in the Washington Park Subdivision of the South Side of Chicago. They violated a restrictive covenant and incurred the hatred of their white neighbors, culminating in a U.S. Supreme Court case: Hansberry vs. Lee.
I will not divulge how Ms. Hansberry’s play ends, but I will attest that her handling of the subject, her depiction of the Younger’s courage and strength, and her thorough understanding of the human spirit in the face of adversity is intuitive and skillful. Incidentally, Lorraine Hansberry was the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway. The play is now available in more than 35 languages and performed all over the world.
Here is a trailer for the 1961 movie A Raisin in the Sun starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Claudia McNeil.
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Sarah M. Fredericks (c) 2015
Carpe Librum!📚Seize the Book…and let the page-turning begin!