A Raisin in the Sun: Lorraine Hansberry

Published by Signet, Vintage, Berkley Books

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?”
–Langston Hughes     

This is a powerful play about an African-American family trying to realize their dreams in spite of the odds stacked against them.

At the centre of the play is the Younger family, who live in a small apartment: Lena (Mama), the matriarch, daughter Beneatha, son Walter, his wife Ruth and son Travis. When the play begins, the family is expecting a large check, paid out because of the death of the father of the family. This creates tension because the decision of what will be done with the money rests with Mama.

Beneatha is studying medicine and some of that money will be set aside for her studies. Mama wants to put the money into a new house. She wants to move the family out of the cramped apartment, where there is barely any light, into a bigger, brighter place.

Walter has big dreams and wants to invest in a liquor shop that one of his friends is starting up. He thinks that a successful business will help him realize the American dream. He is desperate to get the money, or at least a large part of it.

Lorraine Hansberry uses this premise to write about deferred dreams, women’s empowerment, relations between men and women, and between Blacks and whites, Black values and pride, and discrimination in housing. In three acts she paints a picture of the human condition with its joys and complications, its heartbreaks and resilience.

Through Beneatha, the play tackles issues of patriarchy, the burgeoning movement for women’s independence, and a consciousness among the Black community of their roots. There are two men in Beneatha’s life: George Murchison, a successful man who refuses to take her dreams seriously, and Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian man who wants her to be proud of being Black.

But the centre of the play is Walter with his frustration at not being able to provide for his family the way he would like to. He knows there is no reason he should not succeed: he is as good as the whites. But the colour of his skin is against him. He feels that his family, especially Ruth, does not understand what he wants. He oscillates between anger and despair, hope and frustration. He lashes out at George when George accuses him of being bitter.

“And you—ain’t you bitter, man? Ain’t you just about had it yet? Don’t you see no stars gleaming that you can’t reach out and grab? You happy?… Bitter? Man, I’m a volcano. Bitter? Here I am a giant—surrounded by ants! Ants who can’t even understand what it is the giant is talking about.”

Ruth is tired, tired of dealing with Walter’s moods and what she sees as his unrealistic dreams, tired of working as a maid (she and Mama work as cleaners and Walter as a chauffeur). She thinks she might be pregnant and is not sure if a new baby is what the family needs.

Mama is the steady core of the family. Although she seems to accept her “place” in society, she is a fierce matriarch. She has a quiet determination and pride, and is willing to deal with threats and anything else life might throw at them to move her family to a better place.

The play was first performed on Broadway in 1959—the first play by a Black woman and a Black director ever to be on Broadway. But taking it there was not easy. No theatre wanted to put on a play by a Black author, Black director, and an almost all-Black cast.  

When the play was finally staged, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle named it the Best Play of 1959, and it is, today, still considered one of the best plays ever written.

The edition I have was published by Signet in 1988 and includes all the cuts that were made when the play was first performed. I would imagine that all the editions since then have retained the play in its entirety.

This play is a classic because it is timeless. It is as relevant today as it was when Hansberry first wrote it. It is also specific to the Black experience but also, like all classics, it is universal.

A Raisin in the Sun is as compelling now, well over six decades later, and will remain so into the future.

Buy from Bookshop.org UK / Bookshop.org USA

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