(ARISE magazine, issue 14) On March 11 1959, Lorraine Hansberry sat down inside the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, waiting for her play A Raisin In The Sun to begin. At the time, civil rights activists were intensifying their fight against segregation in the Deep South. Inside the theatre, history was also being made as Broadway prepared to welcome its first play written by an African-American woman.
Despite a talented cast, which included Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands, the Broadway preview on March 10 received a lukewarm reception from its mostly white audience of theatre insiders. As the curtains lifted the following night, the 29-year-old playwright clutched the hand of her producer, Philip Rose, with no idea what the evening held in store.
She needn’t have worried. As the curtain was lowered, the audience roared in appreciation. Even the critics rose to their feet, calling Hansberry to join her cast on stage. “It was the most electric night I spent in the theatre,” Poitier later remembered. A Raisin In The Sun went on to enjoy a run of 500 performances, win a prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and be nominated for a Tony Award. The cast also reprised their roles for a film adaptation in 1961.
It was a welcome reward for Rose, who had spent more than a year struggling to drum up interest. “The theatre owners were concerned that there would be no black audience,” he later explained. “The other side of the coin was the producers felt if they did get the black audiences the white audiences would stay away.”
In the end, theatregoers of every colour flocked to see what all the fuss was about. James Baldwin wrote: “I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theatre. And the reason was that never before… had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage. Black people ignored the theatre because the theatre had always ignored them.”
Taking its title from Langston Hughes’ poem A Dream Deferred, which begins “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?”, the play centres around the Younger family, who are awaiting a life insurance cheque for U$10,000 following the death of the father.
They disagree on how best to spend the money: Mama dreams of a bigger home; her frustrated son, Walter Lee, of hanging up his chauffeur’s cap and opening a liquor store; and her daughter, Beneatha, of becoming a doctor. When the family are offered money to not move into a white neighbourhood, they must decide what is more important: money or dignity.
“Mama, it is a play that tells the truth about people, Negroes and life,” Hansberry wrote to her mother in 1958, “and I think it will help people to understand how we are all 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.”
Through the Nigerian Joseph Asagai and his relationship with Beneatha, Hansberry reflected the growing Afrocentrism of black civil rights campaigners – including herself (Hansberry studied African history with pan-African author W E B Du Bois and later wrote Les Blancs, a play set in the fictitious African nation of Zatembe). It was also, noted Roots’ author Alex Haley, “the first time a large audience had seen and heard an African portrayed as carrying himself with dignity and being, moreover, a primary spokesman for sanity and progress.”
Since 1961, A Raisin In The Sun has returned in many forms including a musical adaptation, Raisin, which won a Tony Award for best musical in 1973, and George C Wolfe’s sketch The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play, which mocked the by now beloved classic. In 2004 the play returned to Broadway for a US$2.6million revival with Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs reprising the role made famous by Poitier. While reviews of Combs’ performance were mixed, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald, who respectively played Mama and Ruth, scooped a Tony Award each and the whole cast also starred in a film version in 2008.
When Hansberry died of cancer in 1965, at the premature age of 34, Martin Luther King sent a message to be read at her funeral: “Ms Hansberry’s commitment of spirit, her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.” The fact that A Raisin In The Sun continues to inspire and instruct students, actors and activists decades later is testament of the veracity of King’s prophetic words.