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A Raisin in the Sun

by Lorraine Hansberry

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How does Hansberry use stage directions in A Raisin in the Sun?

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In her play A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry uses an interesting mix of the very specific and the very general in her stage directions.

At the very start of her play, she states,

The action of the play is set in Chicago’s Southside, sometime between World War...

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II and the present.

The play's setting, Chicago's Southside, is quite specific. But the play's time period could be any time between around 1949 and now. This gives the production a wide range of choices for how it wants to present the play for the audience.

The specific setting of the play is the home of the Younger family. As described by Hansberry, their home has a comfortable feel, but it is also tired and worn out.

Weariness has, in fact, won in this room. Everything has been polished, washed, sat on, used, scrubbed too often. All pretenses but living itself have long since vanished from the very atmosphere of this room.

This description sets a strong atmosphere for the tale that is about to be told. It sets up the feeling of the house in which these characters are about to live together, find an opportunity together, fight about it and decide about it, and leave this home. The description also gives the director and set designer a lot of information about the set that needs to be built.

This play makes use of very detailed stage directions to describe characters, what they wear, how they act, and who they are. When we meet the character of Walter, he is described as follows:

The bedroom door at right opens and her husband stands in the doorway in his pajamas, which are rumpled and mismatched. He is a lean, intense young man in his middle thirties, inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habits—and always in his voice there is a quality of indictment.

That is a lot of character in two sentences. Hansberry's naturalistic style of writing is quite different from the minimalist character notes of earlier playwrights like Shakespeare. Before he says a word, we know a lot about Walter. Hansberry takes us into the heart of the character—his mismatched pajamas, his age, his intense attitude. This is akin to a poetic description: it is written in a shorthand manner; it is suggestive; it is less detailed than what you might read in a novel; and it gets the job done, helping us, the performers, and the director understand each character as they enter the play for the first time.

Also, in playwriting, there are two specific types of "stage directions" that are written into a play script. One is referred to as "action," and the other is referred to literally as "stage direction." Here is an illustration of the two together, to understand the definition and how playwrights uses them.

TRAVIS (With sullen politeness) Yes’m.

(He turns in outrage to leave. His mother watches after him as in his frustration he approaches the door almost comically. When she speaks to him, her voice has become a very gentle tease.)

In this example, the phrase in parentheses directly after the character name, "(With sullen politeness)," is know as the stage direction. This may be a specific note to the performer about the emotional state of the character, or it may be a direct piece of business such as "eating" or "moving toward the door."

In the above example, the longer piece in parentheses that starts with "He turns in outrage to leave . . ." is known as action. It is not tied to a specific piece of dialogue but will cover longer bouts of action on stage.

Hansberry makes extensive use of both of these in her play.

Interestingly, not every theater director, or every performer, though they are usually quite loyal to the spoken text of a play, will always pay attention to the playwright's stage directions and actions.

There are different reasons for this. One reason is that in a published version of a play, these actions and stage directions may represent the actions and stage directions that were used in the Broadway production of the play. Thus, it is possible that they were not even written by the playwright, though the playwright may have reviewed them and approved them for the published version. They may have been written by the stage manager and introduced into the published script later. This is part of the reason why many directors and performers do not consider play actions and stage directions to be canonical. They like to do their own thing.

That said, actions and stage directions are useful guides for the production of a play, and they are essential to understanding a play when doing a literary analysis. They provide visual and emotional cues that the text alone may not always provide. For instance, consider this stage direction:

(She rises and gets the ironing board and sets it up and attacks a huge pile of rough-dried clothes, sprinkling them in preparation for the ironing and then rolling them into tight fat balls)

Here, not only do we understand whatRuth is doing, the use of the word "attack" gives us a key understanding of how she is doing the ironing today.

Action and stage direction are also used to set up or change a specific atmosphere. For instance, act 2 begins,

(It is the following morning; a Saturday morning, and house cleaning is in progress at the YOUNGERS. Furniture has been shoved hither and yon and MAMA is giving the kitchen area walls a washing down. BENEATHA, in dungarees, with a handkerchief tied around her face, is spraying insecticide into the cracks in the walls. As they work, the radio is on and a Southside disk-jockey program is inappropriately filling the house with a rather exotic saxophone blues. TRAVIS, the sole idle one, is leaning on his arms, looking out of the window.)

This is a significant change in action in this household from the day before. It is cleaning day, which means the family is working hard (except for idle Travis) and there is a lot to do. This shared activity creates a strong Saturday-morning atmosphere for the household, a background and foreground of action that will continue throughout the scene.

Action and stage direction can also completely shift the atmosphere in a scene. This very morning, the family is awaiting the arrival of a check in the mail—it is the life inheritance check that Mama is waiting for, in the great amount of $10,000. So, underneath the aura of business, everyone is waiting for the moment:

(The bell sounds suddenly and sharply and all three are stunned—serious and silent—mid- speech. In spite of all the other conversations and distractions of the morning, this is what they have been waiting for, even TRAVIS who looks helplessly from his mother to his grandmother. RUTH is the first to come to life again.)

It's the mail! Everything in the scene stops and shifts. Now the fortune of this family is truly about to change.

Stage action and direction can also introduce something very important in every play: music.

(RUTH jumps. The music comes up, a lovely Nigerian melody, BENEATHA listens, enraptured, her eyes far away—“back to the past.” She begins to dance. RUTH is dumbfounded.)

Music is enormously important in all our lives. It affects our mood, our outlook, everything. We can share in the lives of the characters with music, with dance, and with an appreciation of their inner lives, beyond what they say or do. Music is a key that opens the human door. There are other elements the writer can use to evoke distinct atmospheres, as Hansberry does here:

(And now the lighting shifts subtly to suggest the world of WALTER’S imagination, and the mood shifts from pure comedy. It is the inner WALTER speaking: the Southside chauffeur has assumed an unexpected majesty.)

Here Hansberry uses a switch in stage lighting to evoke a direct change of mood, from comedy to something more majestic. Walter reveals his inner self to everyone in the room and to us.

Action and stage directions can bring the characters and the story together, and they can show us deeper aspects of characters that we might not have seen otherwise. Late in the play, as the family prepares to leave their home and move to a white neighborhood, where their future is uncertain, we see the following:

(At curtain, there is a sullen light of gloom in the living room, gray light not unlike that which began the first scene of Act One. At left we can see WALTER within his room, alone with himself. He is stretched out on the bed, his shirt out and open, his arms under his head. He does not smoke, he does not cry out, he merely lies there, looking up at the ceiling, much as if he were alone in the world.)

Walter doesn't know what's going to happen. He feels alone. Hansberry profoundly uses a stage action sequence to reveal his mood, and a strong mood in their home, without using a single line of dialogue. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words—that is one of the strengths of using stage action and stage direction in a play.

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The stage directions in a play can convey important information about events that are occurring or that have occurred offstage, the setting, and the characters. Lorraine Hansberry very effectively uses them for these purposes but also imbues even a prosaic description with nuances and emotional overtones. From the very beginning, her conflictual attitudes toward the Youngers’s situation become apparent to the reader and provide important messages for the director, who will convey those attitudes to the audience.

At the beginning of act I, scene 1, for example, she describes the living room of the family’s apartment. It is not exactly a comfortable space—it would be, “if it were not for a number of indestructible contradictions to this state of being.”

Later in the scene, at the first appearance of Beneatha, Hansberry briefly describes her appearance but offers a detailed descriptive analysis of her voice that captures the numerous influences of her heritage and place of residence.

Her speech is a mixture of many things; it is different from the rest of the family’s insofar as education has permeated her sense of English—and perhaps the Midwest rather than the South has finally—at last—won out in her inflection; but not altogether, because over all of it is a soft slurring and transformed use of vowels which is the decided influence of the Southside.

In act 2, during a scene when Beneatha and Walter are goofing around while dancing to African music, the playwright inserts a brief but telling direction, which combines a lighting cue with a crucial insight into Walter’s character and a change in the scene’s tone:

And now the lighting shifts subtly to suggest the world of WALTER’S imagination, and the mood shifts from pure comedy. It is the inner WALTER speaking: the Southside chauffeur has assumed an unexpected majesty.

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Stage directions are a form of direct characterization, a method of revealing information about characters by telling readers, rather than showing them, what the characters are like. Authors show what characters are like by including their words and describing their actions; this is called indirect characterization. Lorraine Hansberry uses both direct and indirect characterization in A Raisin in the Sun.

Hansberry writes detailed stage directions. These stage directions help convey to readers exactly how she envisioned the characters, and they ensure that the characters remain true to her intentions when they are brought to life by actors on stage. Perhaps more significantly, they help her convey the complexity of her characters by giving power to their gestures and body language. Hansberry’s story is highly character-driven. The thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the characters form a complex dynamic that moves the plot forward, and those thoughts, feelings, and motivations are revealed largely through action. Thus, the descriptive precision of the stage directions contributes largely to the meaning of the story when the play is read as text rather than viewed as a performance.

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