A Raisin in the Sun

A Raisin in the Sun is one of the great plays of the twentieth century. I was lucky enough to see it at the Royal Exchange in 2010 and there is a superb Eclipse Theatre Company production at the Crucible until February 13, then on tour.

I first encountered Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece as an undergraduate ten years ago and found it a compelling piece of drama that – and this is rare for a play – was engrossing, exciting and entertaining even on the page. I wrote a fairly cringeworthy first-year essay about the play and raved about it to anyone who would listen. A couple of weeks back my mum offered to queue for tickets to the public dress rehearsal so I got the train home and went with my folks. When it finished every actor had tears running down their cheeks and I reckon quite a few of the audience did too…

Raisin is about three generations of the Younger family, living in a cramped flat and sharing a bathroom with neighbours, whose fortunes are set to change with the arrival of a cheque for the late Big Walter’s life insurance. The action all takes place in the living room – which doubles up as the young Travis’s bedroom – and is driven by the tensions between generations, genders, siblings, beliefs and colours of skin. The vicious racism of post-war Chicago, which Hansberry had experienced first-hand as a child when her house was attacked by a racist mob, is central to the plot.

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Lorraine Hansberry, New York City on April 7, 1959. (AP Photo)

Hansberry was brought up by committed members of the NAACP and her uncle was a prominent professor and pioneer of African American studies. The family mixed in the same circles as many leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement such as Langston Hughes*, W E B DuBois and Paul Robeson, whose journal Freedom Hansberry wrote for when she moved to New York at the age of twenty. One of Hansberry’s many achievements in A Raisin in the Sun is to distil so much of contemporary Civil Rights and anti-colonial discourse into such accessible, amusing and utterly plausible dialogue. Beneatha – the strong-minded, outspoken atheist who will be a doctor and won’t be pressured into marriage despite the stifling, sexist social conventions of the time – is courted by both an ‘assimilationist’ and a Nigerian student. Her feminism and Afrocentrism are fully developed and wittily articulated, despite predating the second wave of the former and the coinage of the latter by at least two years.

Old values and ways of life are openly challenged (Beneatha: ‘What has He got to do with anything? Does he pay tuition?’), causing painful generational friction. Preoccupations with housing, money, masculinity and education are central, as are the aspiration and social mobility of the post-war period (Beneatha again: ‘the only people in the world who are more snobbish than rich white people are rich coloured people’). There are striking parallels with developments on the British stage at the same time: Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey premiered in 1958 and deals with many of the same issues, including racism, in the British context.

Ossie Davis, who played Walter in an early production, said that ‘one of the biggest selling points about Raisin was how much the Younger family was just like any other American family’. It is testament to Hansberry’s genius as a dramatist that she was able to condense so much of mid-century African American experience into such a seemingly simple domestic drama about an ordinary working-class family.

Until her tragic death at just 34 years old, Hansberry worked tirelessly for the Civil Rights Movement, honouring her conviction that a ‘total’ approach was the only way to gain true equality:

Negroes must concern themselves with every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and non-violent… They must harass, debate, petition, give money to court struggles, sit-in, lie-down, strike, boycott, sing hymns and pray on steps.

To find out just how excellent a production of this wonderful, visionary play the Eclipse Theatre one is, get along to the Crucible by Saturday or go in Ipswich, Southampton, Liverpool, Watford, Deptford or Coventry.

 

Nina Simone talks movingly about Hansberry and performs ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’, the song she wrote for her with Weldon Irvine.

There’s a short doc about Lorraine Hansberry here.

*This is the Langston Hughes poem, ‘Harlem’, from which the play takes its title:

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The Purging of Spence Broughton, A Highwayman

Why is the robbery of the Sheffield and Rotherham mail over 200 years ago still of interest and significance today?

Rob Hindle’s beautifully presented pamphlet from Sheffield’s own Longbarrow Press narrates fragments of the life and death of Spence Broughton, whose body was gibbeted on Attercliffe Common in 1792 and hung there for 35 years. Broughton’s story is vaguely familiar to many from the area, not least because it was immortalised in the name of a particularly scenic stretch of the Ring Road and on the panelled exterior of the city’s most gruesomely kitsch pub, The Noose & Gibbet, which has a plastic Broughton festooned in a grubby England flag swinging outside…

The sequence opens with the voice of authority, Mr Justice Buller, decreeing that Broughton’s ‘body should be suspended between earth and Heaven, as unworthy of either’. The following page is a Post Office notice offering ‘a Reward of ONE HUNDRED POUNDS’ for the capture of John Oxley, Broughton’s accomplice. What follows is Hindle’s multi-voiced imagining of Broughton’s story followed by a sequence of Illustrations, short poems that elaborate on the themes of Broughton’s tragic life and set them in the social and historical contexts of the period.

Hindle’s lines are clean and controlled, narrating each episode with an understated sense of unfolding drama. The simple seven-liner that introduces the first and central poetic voice closes with the image of the gibbet, ‘the forged outline of a man’. The second uses rhythm brilliantly to convey Broughton’s agonising final moments. The first quatrain is brutally monosyllabic other than eyes that ‘ogle’, whose strangled feminine ending conveys expiring life. In the second stanza the creaking rope and desperate, dying beats of Broughton’s heart are evoked by the simple description of his head and hands in the last moments before his final, convulsive crisis, when ‘the bones of his feet / make the dance of the Tarantella’.

 

This second poem also introduces another voice, Broughton’s own, which appears in darker, marginal font and functions as a way of complicating the narrative by offering different and at times dissenting perspectives. This technique enables Hindle to present sympathetically Broughton’s descent into a life of ‘dissolution’ and his powerless perplexity at the cruel indifference of the law towards the poor.

Woven into the narrative is a reference to Broughton’s contemporary Joseph Mather (who I’ve written about before and will be returning to this year…), whose ‘Spence Broughton’s Lament’ was composed in response to the letter Broughton sent to his wife asking forgiveness. Mather hawked his songs at mass public events and it’s likely this one was composed in a rush to be sung and sold to the huge crowds – reportedly 40,000 people (more than the entire population of Sheffield at the time, suggesting both exaggeration and attendance from across the whole region) – that gathered for Broughton’s gibbeting. In Hindle’s ‘A Lads’ Wager’, written in excellent dialect (have ‘nayo’ and ‘ayjers’ appeared anywhere else?)  a mischievous ‘Mathers’ feeds a bowl of ‘curdlin’ broth to the rotted corpse. Also included is a poem about the potters who snapped off one of Broughton’s fingers with a stone and worked it into the handle of a cup.

Broughton’s own voice becomes more prominent as the sequence progresses, taking a whole poem of its own to deliver his account of the robbery and quote at length from the victim’s testimony. The Illustrations section expands Hindle’s attempt to give voice to the marginalised: ‘A Great Battle at Waterloo’ is voiced by a soldier ‘sick of wars, sick to death of generals and officers’. They movingly expand upon the themes of poverty, injustice and the brutality of an arrogant British elite, conjuring historical events from a refreshingly bottom-up perspective. It is this retracing of well-trodden paths through modern history in the shoes of the 99% that makes Broughton’s tragic life seem so close and familiar to the contemporary reader.

You can buy Rob Hindle’s The Purging of Spence Broughton, a Highwayman here for a fiver.

There’s a video of Rob Hindle and Ray Hearne reading from the sequence here and you can listen to a couple of them on Soundcloud here.

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