Lorraine Hansberry – A Raisin in the Sun
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The career of Lorraine Hansberry, a woman deeply committed to the Black struggle for equality and human rights, was interrupted by her death when at the age of 35. A Raisin in the Sun, the play we are going to discuss in this paper was the first play written by an Afro-American woman to be produced and staged on Broadway. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the one of the most important in the American theatre circles. Lorraine Hansberry was the youngest and the first Afro-American writer who managed to win this award.
Hansberry confessed later that she aimed to show “the many gradations in even one Negro family.” The characters of her stories dream, suffer, hope, and triumph overcoming the enormous barriers erected by the culture of the white majority.
Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago as the daughter of a well-known real-estate broker, Carl Hansberry. Her uncle, William Leo Hansberry was a Howard University professor of African history in Washington. As he was one of the best specialists in the African history at those times, one of the colleges at the University of Nigeria was named after him. Lorrain’s parents belonged to the circle of the intellectuals, people who were socially and politically conscious. Her father was an active member of the Republican Party. The events of A Raisin on the Sun were based upon the legal case he won in the Illinois Supreme Court. The thing was that after the writer’s parents bought a house in the white neighborhood, they were once attacked by the aggressive racist mob. After that they went to the court, and won the discrimination case
The writer began to gather information about Africa at a very early age, she was interested in the history and culture of the country where her ancestors lived. Later she used the material she gathered for creating her books and stories.
Lorraine attended public school instead of the private one, even thnough her parents had the money needed to end her there. But for them it was the way to express their protest against the anti segregation laws. Later she studied art at the University of Wisconsin and in Mexico. In Wisconsin she joined the Young Progressives of America and later the Labor Youth League. After attending a school performance of a play by the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, she decided to become a writer. In 1950 she dropped out of college and moved to New York. She took classes in writing at the New School for Social Research and worked as an associate editor of Paul Robeson’s Freedom. During this period she met among others the famous writer Langston HughesIn 1953 Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, A student and songwriter who was Jewish. Lorraine met her future husband on a demonstration against the discrimination in the New-York University. After they got married she had to work various jobs, like waitress or cleaner in order to earn the living, devoting her spare time to writing, but when Nemiroff gained success with his hit song, ‘Cindy, Oh Cindy’, Lorraine could devote herself entirely to writing.
The working title of A Raisin in the Sun was originally ‘The Crystal Stair’ after a line in a poem by Langston Hughes. The new title was also from Langston Hughes’s poem, which asked: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, / Or does it explode?” The play was very successful regardless of the fact the producer, Phil Rose, had never produced a play before there were no large investors interested. The production was first taken out of New York and played in New Haven, Philadelphia, and Chicago. In all places audiences loved it. Eventually it opened at Ethel Barrymore Theatre, on March 11, 1959. In New York, it ran 530 performances. Sidney Poitier played the role of Walter Lee. The film version of 1961, also starring Sidney Poitier, received a special award at the Cannes festival. Unfortunately, Hansberry had also marital problems and she and Nemiroff divorced in 1964.
Her premature death, at the age of thirty-four, cut short her promising writing career. Lorraine Hansberry died of cancer on January 12, 1965.
Unfortunately Hansberry died too young for her to have the large body of work. A Raisin in the Sun was her first completed play, and it was finished in 1954. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, her second play was finished in 1964, and Lorraine has had already been terminally ill with cancer when this play went into rehearsal.
But drama wasn’t the only way through which Lorraine Hansberry expressed her social views and concerns. Being concerned about various social issues, like racial, gender discrimination and discrimination on the basis of the person’s sexual orientation Lorraine wrote letters, like those two she wrote to the fledgling lesbian periodical, The Ladder in August 1954. There she expressed her support of the developing gay and lesbian liberation movements.
Lorraine Hansberry is considered to be a playwright, her productions spotlighting the problems of various kinds of discrimination that exist in the American society. The researchers say that there were some main themes in Hansberry’s creativity, the things that worried her the most in the world she lived in. Some of those were
Race and Racism
Being an Afro-American who had to grow up in the segregated American society of 1940-50 Lorraine had experienced the manifestations of racism by herself. As she received her school education in the ghetto school she was personally acquainted with the quality of education and the conditions of studying there, and being a member of black family she witnessed the manifestation of the display of the true whites’ attitude to people whose skin color was different from their. She saw all that insincerity and hidden disdain, and being a bright and educated person she couldn’t help noticing it. Her wish to give the equal opportunities to all the citizens of the U.S was displayed in all of her works, but A Raisin in the Sun was the brightest manifestation of it.
In her works Hansberry also discusses the notion of the American dream, the persuasion that every person can reach the decent level of living if he puts enough labor for it, and the result would be proportional to the amount of labor put, regardless of the person’s race, ethnicity or faith. The playwright proved that it was a declarative statement which didn’t coincide with the reality.
In her works the writer often compares the right that Afro-Americans and white people have. She proves that in spite of the numerous declarations the rights of the blacks are often severely violated, they are deprived of the rights guaranteed by the American constitution because of the color of their skin.
Hansberry put a lot of attention to the distribution of social roles between people according to their sex. Lorraine connected the society’s negative attitude to the gay and lesbian movement, and its oppression of the feminist movement. The writer displayed the fact it was senseless to consider a woman to be capable of being only a wife or mother, as women in her works often were more intellectual than the man were.
A Raisin in the Sun included all of those themes. It clearly displayed the relations between the representatives of different races, and it showed the attitudes the white had to the Afro-American people. The representations of racism were clearly displayed in the play with the help of the setting the family lived in, and the descriptions of the life they led. Ruth and Walter are employed as the serving personnel just because they are the blacks, and almost nobody felt it was possible for Beneatha to finish the medical school and to make her plans come true.
The play also deals with prejudice and tolerance, the authors of the ENotes about this book state. It displays the prejudices and stereotypes that existed in the society contemporary to the writer’s. The author introduces the manifestations of the prejudices and stereotypes in the play, like the situation when Walter exhibits aggression towards George Murchison, because he considers all the educated man to be less masculine than he is.
The play is also about the sex roles in the society displayed, where woman doesn’t have a right to decide for herself, like Beneatha who has to find a man in order for her dreams to come true. She has been dependent on man for all her life, and she doesn’t rebel, as this situation is totally normal for her, she is interested only in reaching her goals, but she doesn’t think about changing her old routes.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry was one of the most fascinating dramatic productions I’ve ever read. Dreams are one of the main focuses for this play, the dreams its characters have come through the whole play as one of the strongest motives. The epigraph of the play is “What happens to a dream deferred?”, a poem by Langston Hughes
. What happens to people’s dreams that are deferred? They usually have to accept with gratitude what they have and try to fulfill them later someday. This sets the tone for the play. Basically they all dream of a better life, and some of them are waiting for it to come while the others are doing their best to make it come. It starts off as the typical story of a colored family who can make ends meet but really no more. They all live in a small apartment together. Living in this apartment was only supposed to be temporary; however it turned out to be permanent. Mama (Lena), Walter, Ruth, Beneatha, and Travis all live in a tiny apartment. There aren’t enough bedrooms for everyone to sleep in and there isn’t enough income to let them live a steady life.
. Mama, Walter, Ruth, Beneatha, and Travis all live in the same apartment. It is not a very big one, which forces Travis (the youngest) to have to sleep on a couch in the center of the living room. They don’t even have their own bathroom in the apartment Instead they have to use the common bathroom in the hallway.
The first description of the room they dwell in it is full of symbolism. Their family has been living there for a long time already, the carpets are worn out, and thy stopped to complain about that situation long ago. All the members of the family are unhappy about the situation. Since they have been living in the apartment for so long, it seems like the characters have lost hope of living in a where it would be enough space for everyone in the family. Now it is a plain room for this family to occupy. Hansberry makes the setting a very important factor, there are always scene directions. This helps you get a more vivid image of what is actually going on, almost like a movie playing in your head.
Travis is woken up he quickly goes to the bathroom to beat the other people in the apartments, while Ruth begins to make breakfast. Her husband, Walter, wakes up and they have a brief conversation which eventually turns into a minor disagreement. Walter’s mother is going to get ten thousand dollar from the insurance company and member of the family has their own dream of how the money should be spent. They get so excited about the perspectives that open before them, that they actually forget who the owner of the money is. Travis comes into the room, eats his breakfast and asks to give him money for something he has to buy. Ruth actually has the needed sum in her purse, but the reason isn’t valid for her, thus she refuses to provide the money. To spite Ruth the father gives the boy a dollar. This becomes symbolic because further along in the act, Walter asks Ruth for money to get to work. He gave his only money to his son, not some of it, but all of it. Ruth, who refused to give Travis fifty cents, gives her husband a dollar and tells him to take a taxi cab to work. Ruth has some money, but she doesn’t want to spend it on frivolous things, and apparently Travis’s request didn’t seem important to her.
There is one thing that everyone is thinking over constantly, and it is how to make their lives better. Mama is expecting an insurance check for ten thousand dollars and everyone in the family has their own dreams of what they want to do with it. Beneatha wants to become a medical worker, which could’ve made her family proud in the another situation. However, Ruth disapproves the fact that Beneatha doesn’t just want to marry a rich man, like the one she is currently seeing, and be a house wife. Beneatha’s dream is to become a doctor and be able to earn her own living, for not to depend on someone else. The reason is not that she doesn’t want to get married, but really because she wants to be self- sufficient. She is tired of being taken care of, and living with four other people in an apartment that really is only meant for two, three maximum. Walter, the father of the family also has plans for this money, regardless of the fact it belongs to Mama. He has a friend who proposed him to invest money in an alcohol store together with him. Walter hopes he would be able to make this investment with the money his mother is going to receive. He feels like finally he will be the one who brings the bacon home, a real man able of supporting his family. He hopes that the investment will be successful, so that he wouldn’t have to worry about the small everyday expenditures. Ruth is maybe the only person who fully understands that Mama is the sole owner of the insurance money, but she also has her dream, which’s moving into a bigger house. But she also understands that the money may be a chance for Walter and Beneatha to fulfill their dreams and longings
As we can see, this play is about the typical colored family in the U.S, about the conditions the Afro-Americans live in, and the actions they make to conquer the obstacles they meet. As the author experienced them by herself it makes the play quite realistic
- Reuben, P. American Drama – Lorraine Hansberry, ch.8. PAL: Perspectives in American Literature. A Research and Reference Guide – An Ongoing Project, http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/Chap8/hansberry.html
- d. Lorraine Hansberry. African-American Literature Book Club. AALBC Website, 1997. < http://authors.aalbc.com/lorraine.htm >
- Lutz, J. K. Death of a Salesman and A Raisin in the Sun: Comparison and Contrast Project. Chavez High School, 2004
- d. A Raisin in the Sun. ENotes. Gale < http://www.enotes.com >