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A Raisin in the Sun is a play by Lorraine Hansberry that debuted on Broadwaymarker in 1959. The title comes from the poem "Harlem" by Langston Hughes. The story is based upon a black family's experiences in the Washington Park Subdivisionmarker of Chicagomarker's Woodlawnmarker neighborhood. A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadwaymarker, as well as the first play with a black director (Lloyd Richards) on Broadway. 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.

Plot

Walter and Ruth Younger and their son Travis, along with Walter's mother Lena (Mama) and sister Beneatha, live in poverty in a dilapidated one-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 proviso 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 neighbor, makes a generous offer to buy them out 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. Joseph 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, for example with her straightened hair which he characterizes as "mutilation."

Beneatha is upbraided by Joseph for her materialism when she becomes distraught at the loss of the money. She eventually accepts his point of view that things will get better with rebuilding 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 family finally leaves for their new but uncertain future.

Original Broadway Cast



Written by Lorraine Hansberry; Directed by Lloyd Richards

Designed by Ralph Alswang; Lighted by Ralph Alswang; Costumes by Matt Levy; Sound Design by Masque Sound Engineering Company

General Manager: Walter Fried

Production Stage Manager: Leonard Auerbach; Stage Manager: Mervyn WilliamsBy W.D. White

Litigation

The 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. They 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 Courtmarker 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."

Other versions

1961 film

In 1961, a film version of A Raisin in the Sun (film) 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 MacNeil were nominated for Golden Globe Awards, and Petrie received a special "Gary Cooper Award" at the Cannes Film Festivalmarker. However, the film received no Academy Award nominations.

It was not rated by the MPAA, 128 minutes long, and was filmed in black and white.

Musical

In 1973, the play was turned into a musical, Raisin. Hansberry's former husband, Robert Nemiroff, wrote the book of the musical. It won the 1974 Tony Award for Best musical

TV Films

1989 Adaptation

In 1989 it was adapted into a made for TV movie starring Danny Glover and Esther Rolle. This production received three Emmy Award nominations, but all were for technical categories. Bill Duke directed the production, while Chiz Schultz produced the production, which also featured Starletta DuPois and John Fiedler, who had starred in the original Broadway production and the 1961 film version. This production was based on an off-Broadway revival produced by the Roundabout Theatre.

The cast, along with their character names, for the 1989 production are as follows: Danny Glover as "Walter Lee," Starletta DuPois as "Ruth," Esther Rolle as "Mama," and Kim Yancey as "Beneatha."

2008 Adaptation

Another made for television film, premiered on February 25, 2008 on ABC. The cast is mostly made up of actors from the 2004 revival, including Sean "Diddy" Combs, Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, Sanaa Lathan, Sean Patrick Thomas and John Stamos. This version of the play was directed by Kenny Leon.

References

  1. Corley, Cheryl. "A Raisin in the Sun," NPR. March 11, 2002.
  2. Kamp, Allen R. "The History Behind Hansberry v. Lee," 20 U.S. Davis L. Rev. 481 (1987)


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