At the heart of Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ is the universal message of the desire for social progress amid the differing opinions on how to achieve it.
A Raisin in the Sun is a play about an African American family aspiring to move beyond segregation and disenfranchisement in 1950s Chicago. Despite its specific era, the work speaks universally to the desire to improve one’s circumstances while disagreeing on the best way of achieving them.
Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) wrote A Raisin in the Sun using inspiration from her years growing up in the segregated South Side of Chicago. Her father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, was a crusader against that very segregation.
Just months before her untimely death, the playwright and activist spoke out against how little society had changed: “the problem is that Negroes are just as segregated in the city of Chicago now as they were then and my father died a disillusioned exile in another country.”
Hansberry’s book follows the Younger family
Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun is set in a one-bedroom apartment shared by three generations of the Younger family: Walter and Ruth, their son Travis, Walter’s sister Beneatha, and their mother Lena.
The Younger family is waiting for a $10,000 life insurance check resulting from the father’s recent death. The windfall represents a kind of liberation to the family with the central conflict over how to spend the money. Mama (Lena) puts down a payment on a house in an all-white neighborhood (Clybourne Park), while Walter wants to invest in a liquor store. Mama relents, with the condition that they carve out $3,000 for Beneatha’s college education.
On moving day, a chance to make up for the lost money comes when a white representative offers the family a sum of money to prevent them from integrating a white neighborhood. Walter kicks the representative out at first, but after his friend runs off with the money — leaving the family’s dreams in jeopardy — he calls the man back to accept his offer. Trying to justify his decision, Walter screams out to Mama: “I didn’t make this world! It was given to me this way!” Yet, in the final moments of the play, Walter ultimately rejects the offer, and the Younger family leaves for their new home.
Hansberry became the first Black woman to write a Broadway play
When she set out to write A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry told her husband, Robert Nemiroff, ”I’m going to write a social drama about Negroes that will be good art.”
Hansberry not only became the first Black woman to write a Broadway play, but she also made the unprecedented decision to have a Black director at the helm (Lloyd Richards). Centered around a total of 10 leading and featured roles for African American actors, A Raisin in the Sun made its Broadway debut on March 11, 1959. Up until then, there had only been 10 dramas authored by Black playwrights (all men) and only one, Langston Hughes‘ Mulatto, lasted a year.
Hansberry’s Broadway production starred Sidney Poitier and quickly became a hot ticket, running over 500 performances. Touring and international productions followed and a film version was released in 1961 (with the screenplay written by Hansberry — at her insistence — as part of the stipulations of selling the film rights).
The play was nominated for four Tony awards and was named the “best play” by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, making Hansberry the first African American and youngest person to win the award.
Other iterations followed: A Raisin in the Sun was adapted into a Tony award-winning musical in 1975 (Raisin) and was filmed for television in 1989 with Esther Rolle as the Younger family matriarch and Danny Glover as Walter.
Hansberry’s most-famous work has had a lasting impact
Since then, Hansberry’s most famous work has been twice revived on Broadway this millennium. The 2004 cast was led by Sean Combs as Walter Younger, and the production won a featured actress Tony for Audra McDonald, and Phylicia Rashad became the first African American to win Best Actress in a Play. It was filmed for broadcast television in 2008.
The 2014 production starring Denzel Washington won Tonys for Best Revival, Featured Actress and Director Kenny Leon (who also directed the 2004 production and 2008 television film).
Hansberry’s story, including the genesis of her best-known work, was the subject of a recent PBS American Masters documentary, Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, which not only focused on her as a playwright and journalist but also as an activist.
The activist side of Hansberry is an important quality to distinguish, considering activism is in the DNA of A Raisin in the Sun. Walter asks Mama, Why “Clybourne Park? Mama, there ain’t no colored people living in Clybourne Park.” Mama replies, “Well, I guess there’s going to be some now… I just tried to find the nicest place for the least amount of money for my family… Them houses they put up for colored in them areas way out always seem to cost twice as much.”