Required Reading: A Raisin in the Sun

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Good art inspires. Good theater physically moves you. It screams in your face “Look at me and react.” Controversy is a must. Discussion should be created, and the audience never placated. Many plays deal with a single issue and create a story around it. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, however, lassos several issues into one powerful drama without sprawling or meandering.

The play takes its name from the Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem (A Dream Deferred).” The poem and play share a theme, that of achieving (or not achieving) dreams and goals, specifically for impoverished African-Americans. Lena, the matriarch of the Younger family, comes into ownership of a $10,000 check after the passing of her husband. She lives in a one bedroom apartment with her daughter Beneatha, her son Walter Lee, his wife Ruth and their son Travis. Walter Lee wants her to use the money to invest in a liquor store with his friends, while the two other women want her to do what she wants. She eventually decides on buying a house in the fictitious white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. However, a representative from the neighborhood offers the family a significant sum of money not to move in, suggesting they would be happier in an African-American neighborhood. The proposal was a harsh slap in the Youngers’ faces, and their ultimate decision would forever define their existence and possibility for happiness and fulfillment.

The production notes state the setting is in Chicago’s Southside, “sometime between World War II and the present.” Still, the vague setting retains relevancy in 2011. Issues raised involve what it means to be successful, gender relations (including abortion decisions), racial integration, identity politics, and class tensions, just to name a few. Much of what the play has been criticized for involves the idea that a black family can only attain happiness — that their dream can only be achieved — by moving into a white neighborhood and assimilating into bourgeois consumerism. Likewise, the play address what the desires between whites and blacks (and other ethnicities for that matter) to become more integrated in Chicago. According to sociologist Douglas Massey, blacks are more interested in integration than whites. A brash generalization for sure, but consistent with what Hansberry predicted in 1959. Overall, racial barriers are actually a very small component to the play, whereas most of the tension exists between the economic conditions, gender and generations within the Younger’s own race.

I have yet to see the play myself, but I have, of course, read it, and seen the 1961 film version which featured the entire original Broadway cast and is preserved as a part of the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. Despite a rather flowery soundtrack, Sidney Poitier plays an intense Walter Lee and tension is naturally heightened by seeing the words acted out as opposed to just being read. Hansberry meticulously noted the original script for the play though, and it is easy to imagine the setting and characters.

The play continues to inspire. Just last year I saw the debut of Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, a response to A Raisin in the Sun. The play is set first in 1959 with a white family selling their property to a black family (ie, the Youngers); the second act takes place in 2009 with white families gentrifying the now all-black Clybourne Park neighborhood. Just as that play represents the circular pattern of urban neighborhood dynamics, so too does its existence show the prophetic content of Hansberry’s original. Further, the discussion of abortion and a woman’s right to choose is still a very heated debate, and even today top male (and female) decision makers can still be impressively ignorant to the complexities of the issue.

It was a shame that Hansberry passed away so young, with only three plays completed in her 34 years, but her first can still be considered a masterpiece even within such a short canon. The literary, social, and general cultural worlds were all deprived at her passing, but we are thankful she produced such brilliant work with the little time she had.

Andrew Hertzberg

About Andrew Hertzberg

If identity is an illusion, I’m a magician in training. And although Emerson was right in pointing out that “with consistency, a great soul has simply nothing to do” the one constant I don’t mind in my life is Chicago. Yes, even the boredom of her suburbs couldn’t suppress the glow of the city, my attraction as a moth to flame. The future is unwritten, the characters are ever-expanding, and the plot is a perpetual foray through rising actions, conflicts and falling actions; the setting, however, remains the same.

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