A WISER PLAY THAN SOME OF US KNEW
“A Raisin in the Sun” opens at the Wilshire Theatre on April 1, starring Esther Rolle as the grandmother determined to move her family out of their tenement apartment. Amiri Baraka (playwright LeRoi Jones) saw the production in Washington recently and had a profoundly different reaction to “Raisin” than when he first saw it at the turn of the militant 1960s.
In the wake of its 28th anniversary, Lorraine Hansberry’s great play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” is enjoying a revival of a most encouraging kind. In city after city, “Raisin” has played to packed houses and, as on the night I saw it, to standing ovations. It has broken or approached longstanding box-office records and been properly hailed as “a classic.”
For a playwright who knows, too well, the vagaries and realities of American theater, the assessment is gratifying. But even more so is the fact that “A Raisin in the Sun” is being viewed in the light of a new day--by masses of people, black and white.
When “Raisin” first appeared in 1959, the civil rights movement was in its early stages. As a document reflecting the essence of those struggles, the play is unexcelled. For many of us it was--and remains--the quintessential civil rights drama. But any attempt to confine the play to an era or a strictly topical issue (housing) was, as we see now, a mistake.
“Raisin” opened amid these kinds of events: In February, 1960, black students at North Carolina A&T; began to “sit in” at Woolworth’s. By the end of 1960, some 96,000 students across the country had gotten involved in these sit-ins.
By this time, too, Malcolm X, “the fire prophet,” had emerged as the truest reflector of mass black feelings. Young militants like myself were taken with Malcolm’s coming, with the imminence of explosion (e.g., Birmingham, when black men and women struck back with ice picks and clubs in response to the bombing of a black church and the killing of four girls in Sunday school).
We thought Hansberry’s play was “middle class,” in that its focus seemed to be on “moving into white folks’ neighborhoods” when most blacks were just trying to pay their rent in ghetto shacks.
We missed the essence of the work--that Hansberry had created a family engaged in the same class struggle and ideological struggle as existed in the movement itself and among the people. What is most telling about our ignorance is that Hansberry’s play remains overwhelmingly popular and evocative of black and white reality--then and now. The masses of black people dug it true.
“Raisin” lives in large measure because black people have kept it alive. And because Hansberry has done more than document, which is the most limited form of realism. She is a critical realist , in the way that Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Margaret Walker are. She analyzes and assesses reality, and her statement cannot be separated from the characters she creates.
Hansberry’s play was political agitation. It dealt with the very same issues of democratic rights and equality that were being aired in the streets. But it dealt with them not as political abstractions, but as they are lived .
For me this is the test of a writer: No matter what the skill of the execution-- what has been executed? What is it he or she is talking about?
“A Raisin in the Sun” is about dreams, ironically enough. For Lena Younger, a new house and the stability and happiness of her children are her principal dream. This is the completion of a dream she and her late husband--who was literally, like the slaves, worked to death--conceived together.
Her daughter-in-law Ruth’s dream, as mother and wife, is somewhat similar. A room for her son, an inside toilet. She dreams as one of those triply oppressed by society--as worker, as African-American and as woman.
But her dream, and her mother-in-law’s, conflicts with that of her husband, Walter Lee. He is the chauffeur to a rich white man and dreams of owning all and doing all the things he sees “Mr. Arnold” own and do.
Walter Lee’s and Ruth’s dialogues lay out his male chauvinism and even self-hate, born of the frustration of too many dreams too long deferred: the powerlessness of black people to determine their own lives and that of their families in capitalist America where race is place, white is right and money makes and defines human values.
Walter dreams of using his father’s insurance money to buy a liquor store. This dream is in conflict not only with the dreams of the Younger family women, but with reality. But Walter appreciates only his differences with the women--and blames them for it.
Throughout the work, Hansberry addresses herself to issues the very young might feel only “The Color Purple” has raised.
Walter’s sister Beneatha dreams of medical school. Part militant, part dilettante, liberated woman, little girl, she questions everything. She dreams of service to humanity, an identity beyond self and family in the liberation struggles of her people. But will she have the strength to stay the course?
Asagai, the Nigerian student who courts Beneatha, dreams of the liberation of Africa and even of taking Beneatha there: “We will pretend that . . . you have only been away for a day.” But that’s not reality either, though his discussion of the dynamics and dialectics of revolution still rings with truth!
Another dream in the play is the American Dream. Malcolm X said that for Afro-Americans it was the American Nightmare. The little ferret man, Lindner, is this dream’s spokesman, and the only white person in the story.
“You’ve got to admit that a man, right or wrong, has the right to want to have the neighborhood he lives in a certain kind of way,” says Lindner. Except black folks.
Yet there is even a hint of compassion for Lindner, the man, as he bumbles on in outrageous innocence of all he is actually saying--that “innocence” for which Americans are famous, that begs you to love and understand me for hating you . . . the innocence that kills.
The next two explosions in black drama, James Baldwin’s “Blues for Mr. Charlie” and my own “Dutchman” (both 1964), raise the militancy of the movement as it came fully into the Malcolm X era. But neither of these plays is as much a statement from the African-American majority as is “Raisin.” For one thing, they are both too concerned with white people.
It is Lorraine Hansberry’s play, though it seems “conservative” in form and content, that is the accurate telling of the real struggle.
The Younger family is part of the black majority, and the concerns I once dismissed as “middle class”--of buying a house and moving into “white folks’ neighborhoods”--are actually reflective of the essence of black people’s striving to defeat segregation, discrimination and national oppression. There is no such thing as a “white folks’ neighborhood” except to racists and to those submitting to racism!
The Younger family is the incarnation-- before they burst from the bloody Southern back roads and the burning streets of Watts and Newark onto TV screens and the world stage--of our common ghetto-variety Fanny Lou Hamers, Malcolm X’s and Angela Davises. And their burden surely will be lifted or one day, like that raisin in the sun, it certainly will “explode.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.