A Dream Realized: Hansberry's A Raisin In The Sun
“With Ruined and her fresh approach to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Director Liesl Tommy created two of the most artistically exciting productions of recent memory at the Huntington. Now she brings her perspective to one of the greatest American plays ever written.”- Peter DuBois
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun charts the quests for success and happiness in the Younger family as they seek to buy a house in a restricted neighborhood. Their naiveté and ambition as they pursue a place in America are as universal as that of the Lomans in Death of a Salesman or the Ricardos in I Love Lucy. In tragedy, in comedy, and in drama, these fictional, mid-twentieth century families represent for us the touchstone of our cultural legacy: striving to achieve the American dream.
There is one notable difference, however. While the Lomans and the Ricardos essentially function in environments dominated by the white worldview, the Youngers provide a rarely seen glimpse into the aspirations and struggles of African-Americans. Hansberry delved into her own family’s dreams to write her stark depiction of the Younger family’s travails. Born in Chicago in May 1930 to Carl and Nannie Hansberry, her real estate broker-father moved the family to the white-dominated Washington Park neighborhood in 1938, defying a restrictive real estate covenant that prohibited African-Americans from living there. Carl fought the contract all the way to the Supreme Court where a landmark decision allowed for contestation of such covenants.
Hansberry found inspiration in both the incident and the lack of suitable representations of African-Americans in the art of the time. Aiming to depict African-Americans as they were, Hansberry used vernacular speech and brought to light the challenges they often encountered — as well as the dignity and strength they possessed. “The intimacy of knowledge which the Negro may culturally have of white Americans does not exist in the reverse,” she said. This window into black life reinforced for largely white audiences that perhaps the differences between races were not as sharp as they presumed.
“The play is honest. She has told the inner as well as the outer truth about a Negro family in the south-side of Chicago at the present time,” wrote Brooks Atkinson in his New York Times review of the original production. “A Raisin in the Sun has vigor as well as veracity and is likely to destroy the complacency of any one who sees it.”
Because the author of this masterful portrait of American life was young, black, and female, producer Phillip Rose toiled to find enough financing for the production. Once Raisin had opened, it garnered almost immediate success despite the tepid audience at its last preview performance. The first play to debut on Broadway that was either written by a black woman or directed by a black director (Lloyd Richards), Raisin earned four Tony Award nominations, including Best Play. It won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, making Hansberry the first African-American to do so.
Raisin’s success is met only by its prescience. “The events of every passing year add resonance to A Raisin in the Sun,” DJR Bruckner wrote in a 1986 review in the New York Times. “It is as if history is conspiring to ensure [sic] that the play will be a classic.” The play foretold both the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s, uncannily presenting stories that would later speak to these revolutionary pushes for advancement. Hansberry compelled New York audiences to confront issues that were hardly discussed in private, let alone in a public forum, and that would soon absorb the country.
Langston Hughes anticipated such an uprising in his poem, just as Hansberry illustrated the effects of a dream deferred by the Youngers. Raisin answers the incisive — and incendiary — last line of Hughes’ poem: “Or does it explode?” Indeed it did, and Raisin became a beacon for a changing nation.
— Ali Leskowitz