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.