Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
The single most important achievement in African American theater in the 1950’s was the production of Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. It was first produced Off-Broadway, in New Haven, Connecticut, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, because it was rejected by Broadway producers as being “too unlike the typical Broadway play” and because of the perceived lack of interest in African American family life. When it did open on Broadway, however, it received exceptional reviews and ran through 530 performances. Since its Broadway production, it has attracted the widest viewing audience of any play by an African American.
The play has been performed by both professional and amateur groups all over the United States, in large cities and small towns, on college campuses and in community centers. It has also been reproduced on film and on videocassette. It has been widely anthologized in high school and university textbooks and has been published singly in hardcover and inexpensive paperback volumes. Because of this wide accessibility, it is fair to speculate that most Americans, even if they have not read or seen the play, at least know about it.
Although A Raisin in the Sun is held in high esteem by most critics, some have criticized it for what has been called its “soap opera” quality, primarily its perpetuation of stereotypes: the black matriarch (Mama Younger), the frustrated African American male (Walter Lee), the free-thinking college student (Beneatha), the black bourgeois (George Murchison), the “poetic revolutionary” (Asagai), and the white bigot (Mr. Linder). Others have damned its sentimentality, particularly the idealization of the black matriarchical character, Mama Younger.
Most critics would argue, however, that A Raisin in the Sun attests the artistry of Hansberry in being able to explore, in the lives of the Younger family, myth structures and styles formerly ignored by dramatists, especially African American dramatists. They would also concur that the skill with which she interweaves the various themes of the work into a homogeneous whole is testimony to her skill in dramaturgy. Finally, critics agree that the universality of the themes and the variety of social issues raised in the play give A Raisin in the Sun lasting appeal.