A Raisin in the Sun was the first play by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. It enjoyed a successful run and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. It has been staged many times by regional and university theaters since its first production in 1959, and it had a Broadway revival in 2004. It has been adapted for film three times: A 1961 version starred Sidney Poitier as Walter, an American Playhouse television production in 1989 featured Danny Glover in that role, and a 2008 television film starred Sean Combs.
Lorraine Hansberry’s play confronts crucial issues that have faced African Americans: the fragmentation of the family, the black male’s quest for manhood, and the problems of integration. Like Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949), Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (pr., pb. 1956), and other classic American plays, A Raisin in the Sun is fundamentally a family drama. Lena, the family matriarch, is attempting to keep her family together in difficult circumstances. She is the family’s moral center, urging her children to end their quarreling, accept their responsibilities, and love and support each other. That the Youngers pull together in the closing scenes is more a credit to Lena than to her spirited but sometimes inconsiderate children, Walter and Beneatha. By allowing Lena to play this central role in the Younger family, Hansberry asserts the importance of the mother figure in the African American family.
An equally absorbing development in Hansberry’s drama is Walter’s quest for manhood. As the play opens, his father—Big Walter—has recently died, and Walter wants more than anything else to take his father’s place as head of the family. Walter’s job as a white man’s chauffeur gives him a feeling of inferiority, and his wish to purchase a liquor store is an assertion of economic independence, a desire to provide for his family and live out his version of the American Dream. Walter’s selfishness and irresponsibility, however, prevent him from becoming the legitimate head of the family, and only in the end, when he vanquishes Linder and asserts his family’s pride, is Walter able to achieve his manhood.
The play also confronts the problems of racial integration that African Americans faced throughout the twentieth century. As the play opens, the Youngers are trapped in a Chicago tenement, unable to break an invisible barrier that keeps them from the white suburban neighborhood. Linder’s attempt to bribe the Youngers into observing the unwritten rules of northern segregation vividly illustrates the problems that even upwardly mobile black families had when they attempted to leave the inner city and move into the mainly white suburbs. Walter’s decision not to sell out to Linder and the white neighbors he represents is an act of heroism and an act of protest. As the play ends, the Youngers assert their rights as American citizens by choosing to live where they please.
Hansberry’s play is realistic in setting, characterization, and dialogue. In addition to confronting universal African American issues, it reflects the circumstances of African Americans in the 1950’s, at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. The doors of opportunity, if not wide open, had at least been unlocked for black Americans. Jackie Robinson had integrated baseball’s major leagues, and the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed school segregation. Hence Beneatha’s dream of becoming a doctor is a realistic one, as is Walter’s dream of becoming an entrepreneur.
These opportunities, however, create tensions and competition in the Younger family, dramatized by Walter’s verbal battles with his mother and sister and Beneatha’s arguments with her mother. Moreover, the elusiveness of these dreams creates frustration that leads to bitterness. The play’s title comes from a line in a Langston Hughes poem: “What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ Like a raisin in the sun?” Although the play ends on a euphoric note, with the Youngers fulfilling the traditional American Dream of owning a home in the suburbs, there is no guarantee that their future will be trouble-free.
The play also captures the spirit of the budding feminist movement. Hansberry was the contemporary of feminist writers such as Adrienne Rich and Gloria Steinem, and the playwright reflects their dissatisfaction with traditional feminine roles in the post-World War II years. Beneatha’s desire to become a physician, an occupation pursued by relatively few women in the 1950’s, and her rejection of the conventional life she would lead as the wife of George Murchison suggest her rebellion against the conventions that kept women in the home or restricted to traditionally female occupations such as nursing and teaching. Beneatha’s fascination with Asagai and her African heritage forecast the celebration of black Americans’ African roots that would occur in the 1960’s.
The success of A Raisin in the Sun opened theater doors to other African American dramatists such as James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, and Ntozake Shange. Unfortunately, the promise suggested by Hansberry in A Raisin in the Sun was never completely fulfilled. She wrote a handful of plays after A Raisin in the Sun, but none received equal critical attention, and she died of cancer before her thirty-fifth birthday.