A Raisin in the Sun

A Raisin in the Sun Study Guide

Lorraine Hansberry, in an August 1959 Village Voice article, wrote:

In an almost paradoxical fashion, it disturbs the soul of man to truly understand what he invariably senses: that nobody really finds oppression and/or poverty tolerable. If we ever destroy the image of the black people who supposedly do find those things tolerable in America, then that much-touted "guilt" which allegedly haunts most middle-class white Americans with regard to the Negro question would really become unendurable.

Combating the myth of complacency is the central idea that drives Hansberry's play. During a time when African-Americans were portrayed in musicals as jovial resilient characters who were content with their status, A Raisin in the Sun emerged as the first drama written and produced by an African-American that challenged this myth of contentment. On March 11, 1959, Lorraine Vivian Hansberry had her captive audience. That night was not just another evening at the theatre, but rather marked the beginning of a conversation about several vital issues that concerned not just blacks, but the American people as a whole. In this play, Hansberry vividly portrays the stress of poverty. On stage, she creates a real world where five humans are squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment, where a young boy must scramble for a measly fifty cents, and where a man must die for the family to have any hope for the future.

On the surface, Broadway seemed ready to embrace a play like A Raisin in the Sun. At the age of 29, Lorraine Hansberry was the first and youngest African-American to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (for 1958-1959). However, A Raisin in the Sun won the Drama Circle's Critics Award by only one vote. Although it is now considered an American classic, Raisin did not achieve such critical acclaim without controversy. At the same time, Tennessee William's Sweet Bird of Youth, Eugene O' Neill's A Touch of the Poet and Archibald MacLeish's J.B. were playing on Broadway. Hansberry's straightforward social realism stood out amidst the psychological dramas of the time. Interestingly, the play was also not well received by African-Americans with more militant political views. Critic Harold Cruse said of the play,

A Raisin in the Sun expressed through the medium of theatrical art that current, forced symbiosis in American interracial affairs wherein the Negro working class has been roped in and tied to the chariot of racial integration driven by the Negro middle class. In this drive for integration the Negro working class is being told in a thousand ways that it must give up its ethnicity and become human, universal full-fledged American.

Cruse, an anti-integrationist, feared that integration's goal of acceptance into the majority culture would come at the cost of African-Americans' ethnicity. Another critic, fellow playwright Amiri Baraka, who initially dismissed the play's significance, recanted years later and recognized its importance. Baraka said in 1987, "The Younger family is part of the black majority, and the concerns I once dismissed as "middle class"- buying a house and moving into "white folks' neighborhoods"-are actually reflective of the essence of black people's striving to defeat segregation, discrimination, and national oppression." Ironically, the words of this former critic best capture the Youngers' contribution to American theatre.

When A Raisin in the Sun opened in 1959 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, three major adaptations from the original script had been made. In order to cut costs, the scene with Mrs. Johnson, the Youngers' nosy and pretentious neighbor, was cut. The scene previously served to reinforce the various forms of opposition that the Youngers might face. Technical problems also caused the crucial "natural hair" scene to be cut from the production. Originally Beneatha is supposed to cut her hair into a natural style that Asagai admires. However, just before the opening, actress Diana Sands, who played Beneatha, got a haircut that was so bad that the cast felt it would negate the positive attitude toward natural hair that Hansberry was trying to convey. The last omission from the original work was the scene where Travis and his friends chase a rat through the neighborhood. In 1960, a film version of A Raisin in the Sun was released with many more deviations from the original. Walter does not just talk about the local bar, the Green Hat; he is actually shown in it. Also, the Younger family is actually shown moving into the new house. In 1973, Robert Nemiroff revised the play as a musical that ran on Broadway for two years, winning both a Tony and a Grammy.