Mama, it is a play that tells the truth about people, Negroes and life and I think it will help a lot of people to understand how we are just as complicated as they are--and just as mixed up--but above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks--people who are the very essence of human dignity. That is what, after all the laughter and tears, the play is supposed to say. I hope it will make you very proud.
(Lorraine Hansberry in a letter to her mother, January 19, 1959)
A Raisin in the Sun is a play by Lorraine Hansberry, the first one written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. It was a great success among critics and audience alike, as Hansberry had managed to capture some of the many intricate problems among African-Americans of her day. The play was made into a film starring Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil in 1961, and became a musical in 1973.
What happens to a dream deferred?
The play depicts the Youngers, a family of blacks who struggle to save their aspirations when confronted by grim reality. They consist of Mama, the matriarch, her children Beneatha and Walter Lee, and finally Ruth and Travis, Walter's wife and son. The entire story takes place in their run-down apartment on Chicago's southside in the space of a few days, perhaps weeks, in the 1950s.
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Synopsis - Read no further if you want to proceed unspoilt
The whole household is on edge as they await the coming of a letter: Money the diseased Papa Younger has given them with his life insurance. As usual, the gift is both a blessing and a curse. The sum of $10,000 is so enormous that they can do everything and nothing. While Walter dreams big and bigger of abandoning his servant position as a driver, Ruth curses their crowded and discouraging living conditions and secretly wishes for a better place. Beneatha is pursuing medical studies, and takes it for granted that the money will pay for her education. Travis, at 10, is too young to understand, but still feels the sting of being poor - he has to beg his mother for money needed at school, and becomes upset when she does not allow him to earn them.
Or fester like a sore --
And then run?
Mama is the one left with the choice of what to do that will benefit the whole family. Seeing them squabbling and slowly falling apart from desperation, she makes a decision and buys a house for them. Ruth reacts with euphoria, but Walter is devastated: Now he will never be able to open that liquor store with his friends. He stops going to work and increases his drinking. Seeing her son going so determinedly to the dogs, Mama gives him the remaining money and the responsibility for the family. Some of it he has to depose at the bank for Beneatha's education, but the rest he can invest as he pleases.
Does it stink like rotten meat
Or crust and sugar over --
Like a syrupy sweet?
Walter is a new man with a new dignity and a new love for his wife. Nobody fights anymore as they all prepare for a new life in their house in Claybourne Park. Instead, they stand united as a representative from the all-white community tries to persuade them to give it up. Their joy lasts until a friend of Walter arrives with some pretty bad news: Their third "friend" and business partner has made off with all their money - money which included the part set aside for Beneatha's schooling.
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Somehow it seems that their broken hopes bring them even further down than before. Beneatha fumes and rages while Walter becomes mute and brooding. Finally he decides that he has to take the white community man up on his offer: If they give up the house, they can recover a lot of money. But his family appears strangely set against it. The deal means a return to status quo, but one which none of them can take anymore. Realising this, Walter finally comes into manhood by telling the representative his family's history in the USA: Five generations of slaves, sharecroppers and servants, but they're all proud.
Or does it explode?
The family resumes its moving, and with their brightening spirits we perceive that despite their material loss, they have had a victory. Mama Younger shows this the most when she picks up her sad potted plant - the plant has gone on growing in the dank surroundings of this home. Now she is finally able to give it the light it deserves.
Left out from this summary of the main story are the subplots of all the characters, such as Ruth's unwanted pregnancy and Beneatha's two very different suitors. These layers achieve what the author set out to do, to create real characters with complex problems. They are at the same time typical for the downtrodden people she depicts and deeply personal issues.
The play was inspired by Hansberry's own childhood experiences. When her family moved into a white community, they met resistance which took them all the way to the Supreme Court, where they won. Her feminism gave life to the strong female characters in the play, and her interest in Africa spurned the whole relationship of Beneatha and Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian nationalist who scorns her quest for identity and at the same time wants her to become his wife.
The title was inspired by Langston Hughes' Montage of a Dream Deferred, which has been partly quoted in this writeup, as it is in the script for the play.