A Raisin in the Sun portrays a few weeks in the life of the Youngers, an African-American family living on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s. When the play opens, the Youngers are about to receive an insurance check for $10,000. This money comes from the deceased Mr. Younger's life insurance policy. Each of the adult members of the family has an idea as to what he or she would like to do with this money. The matriarch of the family, Mama, wants to buy a house to fulfill a dream she shared with her husband. Mama's son, Walter Lee, would rather use the money to invest in a liquor store with his friends. He believes that the investment will solve the family's financial problems forever. Walter's wife, Ruth, agrees with Mama, however, and hopes that she and Walter can provide more space and opportunity for their son, Travis. Finally, Beneatha, Walter's sister and Mama's daughter, wants to use the money for her medical school tuition. She also wishes that her family members were not so interested in joining the white world. Beneatha instead tries to find her identity by looking back to the past and to Africa.
As the play progresses, the Youngers clash over their competing dreams. Ruth discovers that she is pregnant but fears that if she has the child, she will put more financial pressure on her family members. When Walter says nothing to Ruth's admission that she is considering abortion, Mama puts a down payment on a house for the whole family. She believes that a bigger, brighter dwelling will help them all. This house is in Clybourne Park, an entirely white neighborhood. When the Youngers' future neighbors find out that the Youngers are moving in, they send Mr. Lindner, from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, to offer the Youngers money in return for staying away. The Youngers refuse the deal, even after Walter loses the rest of the money ($6,500) to his friend Willy Harris, who persuades Walter to invest in the liquor store and then runs off with his cash.
In the meantime, Beneatha rejects her suitor, George Murchison, whom she believes to be shallow and blind to the problems of race. Subsequently, she receives a marriage proposal from her Nigerian boyfriend, Joseph Asagai, who wants Beneatha to get a medical degree and move to Africa with him (Beneatha does not make her choice before the end of the play). The Youngers eventually move out of the apartment, fulfilling the family's long-held dream. Their future seems uncertain and slightly dangerous, but they are optimistic and determined to live a better life. They believe that they can succeed if they stick together as a family and resolve to defer their dreams no longer.
Walter Lee Younger - The protagonist of the play. Walter is a dreamer. He wants to be rich and devises plans to acquire wealth with his friends, particularly Willy Harris. When the play opens, he wants to invest his father's insurance money in a new liquor store venture. He spends the rest of the play endlessly preoccupied with discovering a quick solution to his family's various problems.
Beneatha Younger (“Bennie”) - Mama's daughter and Walter's sister. Beneatha is an intellectual. Twenty years old, she attends college and is better educated than the rest of the Younger family. Some of her personal beliefs and views have distanced her from conservative Mama. She dreams of being a doctor and struggles to determine her identity as a well-educated black woman.
Lena Younger (“Mama”) - Walter and Beneatha's mother. The matriarch of the family, Mama is religious, moral, and maternal. She wants to use her husband's insurance money as a down payment on a house with a backyard to fulfill her dream for her family to move up in the world.
Ruth Younger - Walter's wife and Travis's mother. Ruth takes care of the Youngers' small apartment. Her marriage to Walter has problems, but she hopes to rekindle their love. She is about thirty, but her weariness makes her seem older. Constantly fighting poverty and domestic troubles, she continues to be an emotionally strong woman. Her almost pessimistic pragmatism helps her to survive.
Travis Younger - Walter and Ruth's sheltered young son. Travis earns some money by carrying grocery bags and likes to play outside with other neighborhood children, but he has no bedroom and sleeps on the living-room sofa.
Joseph Asagai - A Nigerian student in love with Beneatha. Asagai, as he is often called, is very proud of his African heritage, and Beneatha hopes to learn about her African heritage from him. He eventually proposes marriage to Beneatha and hopes she will return to Nigeria with him.
George Murchison - A wealthy, African-American man who courts Beneatha. The Youngers approve of George, but Beneatha dislikes his willingness to submit to white culture and forget his African heritage. He challenges the thoughts and feelings of other black people through his arrogance and flair for intellectual competition.
Mr. Karl Lindner - The only white character in the play. Mr. Lindner arrives at the Youngers' apartment from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. He offers the Youngers a deal to reconsider moving into his (all-white) neighborhood.
Bobo - One of Walter's partners in the liquor store plan. Bobo appears to be as mentally slow as his name indicates.
Willy Harris - A friend of Walter and coordinator of the liquor store plan. Willy never appears onstage, which helps keep the focus of the story on the dynamics of the Younger family.
Mrs. Johnson - The Youngers' neighbor. Mrs. Johnson takes advantage of the Youngers' hospitality and warns them about moving into a predominately white neighborhood.
The Value and Purpose of Dreams – A Raisin in the Sun is essentially about dreams, as the main characters struggle to deal with the oppressive circumstances that rule their lives. The title of the play references a conjecture that Langston Hughes famously posed in a poem he wrote about dreams that were forgotten or put off. He wonders whether those dreams shrivel up “like a raisin in the sun.” Every member of the Younger family has a separate, individual dream—Beneatha wants to become a doctor, for example, and Walter wants to have money so that he can afford things for his family. The Youngers struggle to attain these dreams throughout the play, and much of their happiness and depression is directly related to their attainment of, or failure to attain, these dreams. By the end of the play, they learn that the dream of a house is the most important dream because it unites the family.
The Need to Fight Racial Discrimination – The character of Mr. Lindner makes the theme of racial discrimination prominent in the plot as an issue that the Youngers cannot avoid. The governing body of the Youngers' new neighborhood, the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, sends Mr. Lindner to persuade them not to move into the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood. Mr. Lindner and the people he represents can only see the color of the Younger family's skin, and his offer to bribe the -Youngers to keep them from moving threatens to tear apart the Younger family and the values for which it stands. Ultimately, the Youngers respond to this discrimination with defiance and strength. The play powerfully demonstrates that the way to deal with discrimination is to stand up to it and reassert one's dignity in the face of it rather than allow it to pass unchecked.
The Importance of Family – The Youngers struggle socially and economically throughout the play but unite in the end to realize their dream of buying a house. Mama strongly believes in the importance of family, and she tries to teach this value to her family as she struggles to keep them together and functioning. Walter and Beneatha learn this lesson about family at the end of the play, when Walter must deal with the loss of the stolen insurance money and Beneatha denies Walter as a brother. Even facing such trauma, they come together to reject Mr. Lindner's racist overtures. They are still strong individuals, but they are now -individuals who function as part of a family. When they begin to put the family and the family's wishes before their own, they merge their individual dreams with the family's overarching dream.
“Eat Your Eggs” – This phrase appears early in the play, as an instruction from Ruth to Walter to quiet him. Walter then employs the phrase to illustrate how women keep men from achieving their goals—every time a man gets excited about something, he claims, a woman tries to temper his enthusiasm by telling him to eat his eggs. Being quiet and eating one's eggs represents an acceptance of the adversity that Walter and the rest of the Youngers face in life. Walter believes that Ruth, who is making his eggs, keeps him from achieving his dream, and he argues that she should be more supportive of him. The eggs she makes every day symbolize her mechanical approach to supporting him. She provides him with nourishment, but always in the same, predictable way.
Mama's Plant – The most overt symbol in the play, Mama's plant represents both Mama's care and her dream for her family. In her first appearance onstage, she moves directly toward the plant to take care of it. She confesses that the plant never gets enough light or water, but she takes pride in how it nevertheless flourishes under her care. Her care for her plant is similar to her care for her children, unconditional and unending despite a less-than-perfect environment for growth. The plant also symbolizes her dream to own a house and, more specifically, to have a garden and a yard. With her plant, she practices her gardening skills. Her success with the plant helps her believe that she would be successful as a gardener. Her persistence and dedication to the plant fosters her hope that her dream may come true.
Beneatha's Hair – When the play begins, Beneatha has straightened hair. Midway through the play, after Asagai visits her and questions her hairstyle, she cuts her Caucasian-seeming hair. Her new, radical afro represents her embracing of her heritage. Beneatha's cutting of her hair is a very powerful social statement, as she symbolically declares that natural is beautiful, prefiguring the 1960s cultural credo that black is beautiful. Rather than force her hair to conform to the style society dictates, Beneatha opts for a style that enables her to more easily reconcile her identity and her culture. Beneatha's new hair is a symbol of her anti-assimilationist beliefs as well as her desire to shape her identity by looking back to her roots in Africa.
About Lorraine Hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago, Illinois, Hansberry was the youngest of four children of Carl Augustus Hansberry (a prominent real estate broker) and Nannie Louise Perry, and niece of William Leo Hansberry. She grew up on the south side of Chicago in the Woodlawn neighborhood.
The family then moved into an all-white neighborhood, where they faced racial discrimination. Hansberry attended a predominantly white public school while her parents fought against segregation. Hansberry's father engaged in a legal battle against a racially restrictive covenant that attempted to prohibit African-American families from buying homes in the area. The legal struggle over their move led to the landmark Supreme Court case of Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940). Though victors in the Supreme Court, Hansberry's family was subjected to what Hansberry would later describe as a "hellishly hostile white neighborhood." This experience later inspired her to write her most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun.
Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but found college to be uninspiring and left in 1950 to pursue her career as a writer in New York City. She worked on the staff of a Black newspaper called Freedom. In 1953 Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish literature student and songwriter, whom she had met on a picket line protesting discrimination at New York University. She worked as a waitress and cashier, writing on her spare time. Nemiroff gained success with his hit song, 'Cindy, Oh Cindy', and Hansberry could devote herself entirely to writing. It was at that time she wrote A Raisin in the Sun. The play was a huge success. It was the first play written by an African-American woman and produced on Broadway. It also received the New York Drama Critics Award making Hansberry the youngest and first African American to receive the Award.
The working title of A Raisin in the Sun was originally 'The Crystal Stair' after a line in a poem by Langston Hughes. The new title was from another Langston Hughes poem, which asked: "What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, / Or does it explode?" The play gained a huge success although the producer, Phil Rose, had never produced a play, and large investors were not interested in it. The production was first taken out of New York and played in New Haven, Philadelphia, and Chicago. In all places audiences loved it. Eventually it opened at Ethel Barrymore Theatre, on March 11, 1959. In New York, it ran 530 performances. Sidney Poitier played the role of Walter Lee. The film version of 1961, also starring Sidney Poitier, received a special award at the Cannes festival. When Hansberry was a college student she had written: "We want to see film about people who live and work like everybody else, but who currently must battle fierce oppression to do so."
She died on January 12, 1965, of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window ran for 99 performances on Broadway and closed the night she died. Her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff became the literary executor for several of her unfinished works. Notably, he adapted many of her writings into the play, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which was the longest-running Off-Broadway play of the 1968-1969 season. It appeared in book form the following year under the title, To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words.
She left behind an unfinished novel and three unfinished plays, the content matter dealing with many types of emotions.
Raisin, a musical based on A Raisin in the Sun, opened in New York in 1973, (Book by Nemiroff, music by Judd Woldin, lyrics by Robert Britten.) winning the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Louis Gossett Jr. (as Louis Gossett) - George Murchison
“In A Raisin in the Sun, which opened at the Ethel Barrymore last evening, Lorraine Hansberry touches on some serious problems. No doubt, her feelings about them are as strong as any one's.
But she has not tipped her play to prove one thing or another. The play is honest. She has told the inner as well as the outer truth about a Negro family in the south-side of Chicago at the present time. Since the performance is also honest and since Sidney Poitier is a candid actor, A Raisin in the Sun has vigor as well as veracity and is likely to destroy the complacency of any one who sees it . . .
All the crises and comic sequences take place inside Ralph Alswang's set, which depicts both the poverty and the taste of the family. Like the play, it is honest. That is Miss Hansberry's personal contribution to an explosive situation in which simple honesty is the most difficult thing in the world. And also the most illuminating.” (March 12, 1959)
“After touring to positive notices, the play finally landed on Broadway. After an underwhelming preview show, some were convinced that Raisin was doomed. But the night of the premiere, the audience erupted in appreciation, and critics responded just as enthusiastically. The New York Drama Critics Circle named it the best American play of 1959.
Hansberry may not have expected quite so much adulation, but she was aware of the play's significance, especially to Broadway's overwhelmingly white audiences. ‘The intimacy of knowledge which the Negro may culturally have of white Americans,’ she once said, ‘does not exist in the reverse.’ ”