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