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Playwrights of Color
A Raisin in the Sun
“To be young, gifted and black” (Lorraine Hansberry) is a phrase which is commonly associated with Lorraine Hansberry, which comes from the collection of autobiographical pieces which were put together by her ex-husband in her honor when she died. Throughout the years, individuals from all walks of life have come to America with dreams of a better life, in many different areas such as social, educational, and economical opportunities as well as political and religious freedoms. With these wishes and dreams, the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Mitchell), which to many Americans embodies the American dream, can become a reality or just a harsh reminder of what the American dream stands for because for some it comes true but for many, they are never able to reach their dream. She wrote the play A Raisin in the Sun to show people that supporting friends and family members is important through the hard and trying time. If you are able to work hard and truly believe in yourself, dreams can come true in one form or another. The American dream to each individual, no matter age, race or gender has a different meaning. A Raisin in the Sun is important because it crosses over the continued debate of racial and gender issues which arose during the time this play was written, and even during the present day and age.
Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago in 1930. Through her earlier years, Hansberry’s parents sent her to public school rather than private schools in a protest against the segregation laws. In 1938, the Hansberry family was one of the first African American families to move into an all white neighborhood. After moving in, the neighbors threatened them with violence and legal action, but the Hansberry’s would not put up with any of it and Hansberry’s father would later bring his case all the way to the Supreme Court. When she finally went to college, she ended up studying at multiple schools including, the “University of Chicago; at the Art Institute of Chicago; at the New School of Social Research in New York; in Guadalajara, Mexico; and at the University of Wisconsin”(Encyclodpedia of World Biography on Lorraine Vivian Hansberry). While attending college, she saw a school performance of a play by the playwright Sean O’Casey and decided to become a writer. In 1950, she ended up dropping out of college and moved to New York. While in New York, she decided to take classes in writing at the New School for Social Research and ended up working as an associate editor of Paul Robeson’s newspaper/magazine Freedom. During this period of her life, she met many leading African-American intellectuals, activists and famous writers, such as one famous writer, Langston Hughes. In 1953 Hansberry ended up marrying Robert Nemiroff, who was white, also a graduate student in Jewish literature, a songwriter, and took part in participating in the political events of the time at the protesting discrimination at New York University. Nemiroff gained his huge success with his hit song, ‘Cindy, Oh Cindy’, and after Nemiroff’s success, and Hansberry’s many part time jobs, she was able to settle down and devote herself entirely to writing. While writing, it eventually took its form in a play, which came from a poem by Langston Hughes, called “Harlem”. The success of the play, A Raisin in the Sun, ended up winning the award for best play of the year, which made Lorraine Hansberry the first African American and the youngest American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. “She used her new fame to help bring attention to the American civil rights movement as well as African struggles for independence from colonialism”(A Raisin in the Sun). After many years, Hansberry had marital problems with Nemiroff and they decided to divorce in 1964. Hansberry was only able to live long enough to see one other play, besides A Raisin in the Sun, be produced. On January 12, 1965, Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer at the young age of thirty-four. She ended up being one of the first playwrights to portray real African American characters and their struggles in day to day activities of African American life. This was shown in her play by the inspiration of her own family’s struggles against the legal battles in segregated housing laws during her childhood.
The working title of A Raisin in the Sun was originally ‘The Crystal Stair’ after a line in an earlier poem by Langston Hughes, who was another African American playwright, poet, novelist, and short story writer. Hansberry ended up changing the title of her play again, after another one of Langston Hughes’ later poems, which asked:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode” (Hughes)?
Produced and finished in 1957, the play A Raisin in the Sun, was the first drama by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. It took two years after it was finished, on March 1959, for the play to be revealed on Broadway at the Ethyl Barrymore Theater. From there, the Broadway production moved to the Belasco theatre and ran for 530 performances, where it started earning many awards. This play is unique in many aspects and covers many important issues. The play was unique because it was the first play to be produced on Broadway, written and directed by an African American and the first to have an all-black cast. The play gained huge success even though the producer, Phil Rose, had never produced a play, and large investors were initially not interested in it. In all the places the play was shown, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, the audiences absolutely loved it and shortly thereafter it became a huge success. With its huge success and fame, it ended up having a long run in theater and was later turned into a movie and after that, was later turned into a Broadway musical.
The play, A Raisin in the Sun, is important in many different aspects of everyday life. With Lorraine Hansberry growing up how she did, in the neighborhood and time, she knew all about disappointment, false hope and despair. Hansberry’s ancestors also knew about the hard times with exploitations, despair, frustrations and their dreams turning into dreadful nightmares as they came north to hopefully find a better life. Hansberry records the history of her ancestor’s nightmares in a Raisin in the Sun, by portraying a classic story of the Younger family, struggling to realize their dreams by escaping ghetto life. Hansberry’s screenplay shows the story of the Younger family, but it actually reveals the plight of all families and individuals who have at one point experienced or those who are living right now, in despair, have lost hope in their life and have failed dreams and goals. Her immense dedication to this play, gives it its power for all people who read it and for those who end up dealing with it in everyday life. This play is an excellent choice for many different types of classes such as, literature, drama, history and film classes. The play will keep the attention of many different types of people based off of the play’s action, dialogue, and cast of dynamic characters which captivate many different types of audiences from high school students through college students up to the adult readers. Young people endure many different frustrations with their lifestyle and rebel against parents which can bring little gratification at times. However, the adolescent who wants to truly believe that dreams do come true and are not made up, comes from the adolescent who is hiding beneath the cynical surface, making the heart beat of the true idealist.
“Through Hansberry’s careful craftsmanship, the universal themes of the importance of dreams and the frustration of dreams deferred, the strength of family, the importance of not selling out, the problems of conflicting expectations, the belief that love and trust will win over deceit and selfishness, and the dangers of prejudice and stereotyping are as powerful today as they were nearly four decades ago when she wrote the play” (TeacherVision).
Adolescents come from many different families, with different types of problems and family structures, so they need exposure to the values which are shown within a traditional family, and this play delivers that without lecturing or preaching. Another reason A Raisin in the Sun is important is because of its historical value. The play shows the challenges and conflicts by reflecting the provocative natures through the racial attitudes through time, starting around the 1950s making its way to the present. Prejudice is seen in many forms, and the characters in Hansberry’s play along with the screenplay’s visuals bring this theme to life like nothing ever could.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â This play represents life in the racial or ethnic community in many different and unique ways. The play is considered a turning place in American art because it addresses so many important issues and conflicts when this play was produced during the 1950s. The 1950s brought along the stereotypical age of the happy housewives and portrayed the African Americans as being comfortable with their inferior status. These stereotypes resulted in the social resentment that would eventually find public voice in the civil rights movement and importance in later movements such as the feminist movements of the 1960s. The play was also a revolutionary work for its time and can be shown by the way Hansberry created the African American Younger family, by portraying one of the first real and honest depictions of a black family on an American stage.Â Usually in a play, groups or individual African-Americans were always portrayed in the typical ethnic stereotypical roles and were displayed as small and comedic but this play overall portrays a united black family in a realistic light, which ends up being far from the comedic style which most people may think of. Hansberry uses black dialect throughout the play and introduces important issues, questions and concerns which many other families during this time and even during the present day and time run into, such as poverty, discrimination, and the creation of African-American racial identity. This play looks at the racial tensions between the black and white communities in addition to exploring the tensions within the black community itself. This can be shown when the family tries to reach their goals despite the challenges of poverty and racism all around them, by putting a down payment on a house in an all-white suburb neighborhood and shortly after this, the family is hit with racism in an unusual form from the white community. Throughout the play, Hansberry asks difficult and thought provoking questions about assimilation and figuring out ones true identity. One way this is shown, is through revealing Beneatha to a trend of celebrating African heritage, through the character of Asagai (her boyfriend and maybe future husband). Another important issue this play represents is how it addresses feminist questions about another important issue, marriage. The topic of marriage comes up for Beneatha in this play towards the end, which Hansberry portrays as not being necessary for all women and that every women should have ambitious career goals instead of giving up on their dreams before they have a chance to fight for their own personal dreams. Hansberry also approaches an abortion debate, which is touched on during a time when abortion was not allowed and is still causing concern and a lot of controversial talk today. Having this play written during the time period and being produced when it was, was such a huge success for someone with her status as being young, black and a woman growing up in the 1950s. This showed how much she overcame as a woman, how much people were starting to accept change and how people started understanding important topics which needed to be addressed during this time. No matter the age, race or gender of a person, it shows just how important the idealism of a single person’s, race and gender is in the pursuit of dreams and just how crucial dreams are in an individual’s life. As the play focuses primarily on dreams and what happens to the dreams in driving and motivating the main character’s actions, emotions and feelings throughout the play, it also reveals what happens to people out in the real world. Any negative dreams that happen in an individual’s life, no matter the age, gender or race of a person, seem to stem from the fact that people are placing stress and importance on objects rather than on family pride and happiness. Like the main point of this play says, if everyone attempts to support and encourage their family, and not only focusing on themselves and being selfless, they can lift each other up and support each other through the toughest of times. This can happen if you never give up hope on each other and never give up on your own dreams.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â This play focuses on major issues such as racism between white and black communities, abortion, marriage, assimilation and finding one’s true identity but in the end the play boils down to a timeless point; dreams are what make each person, white or black, push on in life in order to live each day like it was their last. A Raisin in the Sun is central, in the continued debate over racial and gender concerns, making this play a critical cultural document in an essential period of American history.
“A Raisin in the Sun.” 2009. SparkNotes. 15 November 2009
“A Raisin in the Sun.” 2000-2009. TeacherVision. 14 November 2009
“A Raisin in the Sun: The Quest for the American Dream.” EDSITEment. 4 December 2009
“Encyclodpedia of World Biography on Lorraine Vivian Hansberry.” 2005-2006. BookRags. 14 November 2009
Hughes, Langston. “Harlem (A Dream Deferred).” Lorraine Hansberry 15 November 2009: 1040.
Liukkonen, Petri. Lorraine Hansberry. 2008. 14 November 2009
“Lorraine Hansberry.” 15 November 2009: 1037.
Mitchell, Diana. “A Teacher’s Guide to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.” A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet and Plume Editions of the Screenplay Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. 2 December 2009
Moon, Andrea and Cathy Hartenstein. “A Raisin in the Sun Study Guide.” The Cleveland Play House. 4 December 2009
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