Abstract illustration of the houses of Clybourne Park

A Raisin in the Sun

by Lorraine Hansberry
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I need to know the audience and purpose of A Raisin in the Sun.

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In the late 1950s, when Lorraine Hansberry wrote this play, it was almost unheard of for a mainstream, commercial play to feature all black characters. The only white person in A Raisin in the Sun, Karl Lindner , is a very minor (though important) character. Most Broadway and...

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In the late 1950s, when Lorraine Hansberry wrote this play, it was almost unheard of for a mainstream, commercial play to feature all black characters. The only white person in A Raisin in the Sun, Karl Lindner, is a very minor (though important) character. Most Broadway and off-Broadway plays for white audiences had all white characters, or, if they included African Americans, those characters were likely to play small roles, such as servants. Furthermore, the kinds of challenges that the Youngers face—such as the difficulty of becoming a business owner and the reality of segregated housing—had never been presented in the mainstream theater.

Hansberry has written of the experiences that her own family faced in moving to a formerly segregated neighborhood. She drew on these experiences in creating the complicated situation in which the Youngers are involved. When she wrote the play, she was not convinced that it would ever be produced. When she finished the first draft, she thought, “I had no reason to think or not think would ever be done; a play that I was sure no one would quite understand."

A highly unusual combination of circumstances led both to its original production and its rapid move to New York. As Robert Nemiroff (her husband at the time) writes in the Introduction to the published play, it was

the first play by a black (young and unknown) woman, to be directed, moreover, by another unknown black “first,” in a theater were black audiences virtually did not exist—and where, in the entire history of the American stage, there had never been a serious commercially successful black drama! (emphasis in original)

He further notes that during the first attempt to launch the play on Broadway, Phil Rose, the one producer who had committed to the play, spent eighteen months unsuccessfully trying to find a co-producer. Even after David Cogan signed on, "not a single theater owner on the Great White Way would rent to the new production!” That was the reason that the play began tryouts in New Haven, Connecticut. The audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and the critics also raved, so the play was deemed commercially viable and did open on Broadway.

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Whenever we think about questions such as the audience or purpose of a work of literature, often we need to infer the answer from the themes within the play. This play was not written for a specific audience, but rather it was for a general audience, consisting of both blacks and whites. The way that it presents the struggles of a black Chicago family and argues for racial tolerance seems to suggest that it was intended for a white audience just as much as a black audience.

Certainly, the presentation of the Younger family and the various trials they suffer due to their race indicates that race and racism are key elements of this excellent play. Race is shown to impact almost every single act they perform and their lack of opportunities and the struggles they face daily are a direct result of the colour of their skin. Their poverty is shown partly through the apartment where they live, which is not cared for properly by the owner. Travis is shown to chase a rat and Ruth fights battles to eradicate the cockroaches there--both features of life that many whites would never dream of experiencing in their own homes.

However, most important to this theme is the visit of Lindner and his attempt to dissuade the Youngers from moving to his neighbourhood. Being willing to pay off the Youngers for not moving into his neighbourhood, that he wants to be all-white, is a subtle and pervasive form of racism, made all the more dangerous because of its non-violent form.

In this play, therefore, Lorraine Hansberry seems to be presenting the realities of black life to her audience but also arguing for a more tolerant approach to race and racism. The intended audience, from what we can infer, was meant to be made up of both whites and blacks.

 

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