The furniture in the Youngers' apartment is old and worn, but clean. The pattern on the carpet is threadbare; the couch is covered with dollies. Although it is only a one-bedroom apartment, five people live there. Beneatha and Mama live in the bedroom. Walter and his wife Ruth have converted the small breakfast nook into their bedroom. Their son Travis sleeps on the sofa in the living room, which serves as the dining area in the daytime. The multiple functions of the room present a challenge for young Travis. The night before the play begins, Travis has been up late because his father had friends over and the young boy was not able to go to sleep until they left.
Ruth is responsible for getting her son and husband up before cooking breakfast for the family. The Youngers' mornings are rushed. The fact that they share a bathroom with the Johnsons only increases the difficulty of getting to school and work on time. Within the first few moments of the play, the audience is not only exposed to the Youngers' morning routine, but also becomes aware of the extent of the financial pressure on them. Travis needs fifty cents for school, but Ruth refuses because she knows the family cannot spare the money. Travis offers to carry groceries in order to earn the money, but it is beginning to get cold outside, and Ruth is concerned for her son's health. Walter gives his son a dollar anyway, in order to give him the impression that they are not financially strained.
Walter desperately dreams of bettering his situation. Just the night before, Walter was up late talking and planning with friends. He wants to go into business with his friend Willy Harris, whom Ruth calls a "good-for-nothing loud-mouth." He is determined to finally follow through on his plans because he missed out on the last opportunity to start a dry-cleaning business. The owner, Charlie Atkins, now grosses about $100,000 a year. Walter's plan for a liquor store requires an investment of $75,000. The initial investment of $30,000 would be split between three partners, and would consume the whole of the $10,000 life insurance check left to the family by Walter Sr.
While Walter tries to tell Ruth (who is tired and reluctant to listen) about his plans, his sister wakes up and enters the kitchen. Beneatha is a 20-year-old college student, and has a combative relationship with her older brother. She is determined to be a doctor, but Walter is doubtful about the idea. Few women, he declares, decide to become doctors rather than nurses. Ultimately, however, he is concerned about the cost of medical school, and how the burden will infringe upon his dreams. While arguing, he says to Beneatha, "go be a nurse like other women-or just get married and be quiet."
Walter leaves for work and must ask Ruth for fifty cents to take a taxi because he has given Travis all his money. Mama, a robust woman in her early sixties, enters. She is immediately concerned about the well-being of others. She is worried that Beneatha will catch cold without a robe, and about whether Travis got a hot breakfast. After inquiring about the subject of Walter's and Beneatha's argument, Mama notices that Ruth is looking thin and tired. Mama even cares for a little plant that becomes a small but important symbol in the play.
Ruth initiates the conversation about what Mama will do with the insurance check. Just as Walter has asked her to do, Ruth tries to persuade her mother-in-law to invest the money in the liquor store. When Mama asserts that the family is not the investing type, Ruth says, "Ain't nobody business people until they go into business." Despite these words, Ruth encourages Mama to do whatever she wishes with the money, such as travel to Europe. Mama says that she has always wanted a house, and wishes to use the money to make a down payment on a bigger place. Walter Sr. and Mama had always planned to live in a house: the plan was to live in the apartment for a year, and then move to Morgan Park. The dream never came to fruition during Big Walter's lifetime.
Beneatha enters the scene annoyed by the vacuum cleaner being run in the upstairs apartment and exclaims, "Christ's sake!" Mama reprimands Beneatha for swearing. Beneatha reveals to her family that she plans to take up the guitar. Ruth and Mama tease her because Beneatha has taken up so many short-lived hobbies, including horseback riding and photography. Beneatha defends their derision by saying that they are all used to "express" her. Ruth and Mama laugh again and inquire about her courtship with George. Beneatha is dating a wealthy college student named George, but believes he is shallow. George also is not supportive of her desire to become a doctor. Mama emphasizes God's role in her becoming a doctor, and Beneatha dryly responds, "God has nothing to do with it." Mama addresses Beneatha's atheism, warning her that she and her father raised her to believe in God. Beneatha succinctly denounces God as only an idea that she does not believe in. Mama slaps her and makes her repeat, "In my mother's house there is still God." After Beneatha leaves, Mama sadly reflects on the changed relationships between herself and her children, and realizes that she no longer understands them fully.
Playwright Amiri Baraka describes Lorraine Hansberry as a "critical realist [who] analyzes and assesses reality and shapes her statement as an aesthetically powerful and politically advanced work of art." The first scene of A Raisin in the Sun creates this realistic setting. Following a history of blacks being portrayed on Broadway as happy, jovial, and exotic, Hansberry seeks to debunk this myth of contentment by portraying the realities of poverty and the concrete obstacles racism places in front of the achievement of the American dream.
The set in A Raisin in the Sun is critical to this goal, giving the audience a visual testament to the Youngers' poverty. The apartment the Youngers live in has been relentlessly cleaned over the years. The carpet is threadbare from vacuuming; the furniture is worn from dusting; the apartment is sprayed weekly to keep roaches away. Despite their efforts, the facilities are inadequate. The apartment is overcrowded, and one small bathroom serves two large families. During this scene, Hansberry refuses to allow these inadequacies to be forgotten and fade into the background; they constantly disrupt the plot as Travis, Walter, and Beneatha carry on various conversations while keeping an eye out for the bathroom to be free.
The pressures of everyday life in the ghetto have taken a toll on Ruth: "disappointment has already begun to hang in her face." In addition to working as a domestic servant, she is responsible for keeping her family together. Ruth is concerned about the necessities, such as getting the family up on time, making breakfast for her son and husband, and having enough money to get to and from work. She does not have time for world events or Walter's pipe dreams. When Walter begins to talk about his liquor store investment, she responds, "Eat your eggs." When he says how disappointed he is that he can only tell his ten-year-old son stories about rich white people, Ruth again responds, "Eat your eggs." After Walter explodes, Ruth explains:
Honey, you never say nothing new. I listen to you every day, every night and every morning, and you never say nothing new. (shrugging) So you would rather be Mr. Arnold than be his chauffeur. So-I would rather be living in Buckingham Palace.
Ruth is stifled by the absurd redundancy of everyday life. For the eleven years of her marriage, she has seen no real progression. The Younger family is the epitome of the American work ethic: even though they toil, they do not see the fruits of their labor. In fact, Ruth is not only responding to the disappointments of her lifetime, but to the disappointments experienced by previous generations, as well. Walter Sr. had moved into the same apartment with the hopes of owning a house within a year. Now Walter Sr. has passed, and three generations live in the same tiny apartment. Ruth, overcome by this stagnation, has lost hope.
Both Walter and Beneatha are sustained by their dreams. Walter dreams of being an entrepreneur. He, along with his friends Willy and Bobo, plan to open up a liquor store. Beneatha, currently a college student, wants to become a doctor. Both of these dreams rely upon their father's life insurance check for its realization. Therefore, beneath the seemingly normal brother-sister dissent lies a fierce struggle for the survival of each individual's dreams. This tension surfaces the morning before the insurance check arrives. Walter's deceptively simple inquiry about how Beneatha's studies are going in school leads to an argument. Walter accuses Beneatha of being ungrateful for the sacrifices the family has made for her to go to college. For the first time he reveals that he wishes his sister would "be a nurse...or just get married and be quiet." Walter's chauvinist statement is an open affront to Beneatha, who is struggling to go beyond what society says women ought to do. Walter's dreams for his sister are no bigger than society's. The argument ends with both siblings admitting that the insurance money belongs to Mama, and it is for her to decide how it will be spent. However, the scales are weighed against Walter because his mother is not likely to support the idea of a liquor store.
Both Walter and Beneatha battle with Mama's conservative Protestant ethic. Mama disapproves of Walter's business plan because she disapproves of selling liquor. She says, "Well-whether they drinks it or not ain't none of my business. But whether I go into business selling it to 'em is, and I don't want that on my ledger this late in life." Lena's objection is short and succinct: she notifies Beneatha of her moral conviction, and does not seek to debate its validity. Mama's rigid beliefs conflict with Beneatha's new philosophies. When Beneatha asserts that God is just an idea that she does not believe in, Mama slaps Beneatha across the face, giving her daughter the clear message that atheism will not be tolerated in her household.