Review: A Raisin In The Sun
by Orlando Green
A RAISIN IN THE SUN was written by Lorraine Hansberry and depicted the challenges of a Black family against it’s own internal problems as it is intensified by white racism. The play tackles issues of patriarchy (sexism and homophobia), poverty and white-skin privilege. The daily human challenges of family responsibility and love become harsher struggles in the face of urban poverty and the cold of white racism. The play also addresses the transformation of the challenges of an older generation of working poor African Americans in comparison to a younger generation’s challenges. Lorraine Hansberry’s play gives great cultural insight into the generational struggles that precedes the young Black hip-hop generation born between 1969-1984.
For this review, we looked at the version cast with Danny Glover and Cicely Tyson. An equally classic version that followed the original starring Sidney Poitier. Currently, there is a renewed interest in Hansberry’s play with a revived Broadway ensemble starring Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan, Sean Combs and Audra McDonald. An ensemble that merged an audience coming from the hip-hop generation with those that can remember THE WIZ. Rashad won a leading Broadway actress award for her performance and had to acknowledge that the cast brought a different audience that would have normally saw the play today.
In the play, the Younger family is struggling with multi-generational poverty. As the late Walter Younger and Lena Younger struggled through low-skilled occupations and segregation, Mr. Younger was able to leave his children $10,000 that they did not see. Although Mr. Younger was not able to live to see this, he plays a role in the story without being present or ever being seen. Before the money had arrived, plans were already made by Walter Lee Younger Jr. to invest in a risky business as the mother had more responsible plans to invest in a home and Beneatha Younger’s medical school education.
Sexism is very evident in the film with the rants of Walter Lee Younger. He opens the play in dialogue with his wife Ruth telling her that, “Black women are the most backward of all women in the world” because they do not support their Black men. Hence, providing the supporting rhetoric for his place as the patriarchal head of the family. He enforces his patriarchal aspirations as he defiantly gives his son the money for school that Ruth Younger denies for possibly economic reasons.
Beneatha appears as a new and emerging Black voice in the film that has not yet come into her own yet. She is influenced by new ideas and is at a crossroads between Black poverty and joining the status of the Black bourgeoisie (she is a college student and an aspiring doctor). Beneatha still suffers from sexism and patriarchy throughout the film. Her aspirations of being a doctor, and not a nurse, challenges the psychological limitations that racist and sexist society has for young Black women. She is challenged by all the adults for not conforming to their notions of a woman’s role and behavior. But…is she a feminist? Probably not because throughout the play she does not portray any control over her life as she is dependant on others.
The very beginning of the film has her brother telling her that to not bother being a doctor, but to be a nurse or get married instead. The argument arises after a discussion on money. Heightened by the conditions of poverty, a choice is made later by Walter Lee for his “dream” to be more important than Beneatha’s goal of medical school. Her goal not respected, made it easier to dismiss and fumble the money elsewhere. Without reading her biography, I wondered throughout the film if Beneatha was a reflection of a younger Lorraine Hansberry.
Hansberry also expresses early in the play that women are the backbone of the social organization of the family whether they realize it or not. The mother, Lena Younger is the ultimate support and final word in the home but she is still a “good” patriarchal mother in that she is willing to give it up to her irresponsible son Walter. She said, “Be a man like your father” as she pushes him to be the patriarchal ruler. Ruth, wife of Walter Jr., symbolically gets everybody’s day going in the very beginning by organizing their morning and breakfast before her son and husband go to school and work.
The relationship to white racism was addressed in many forms in this play. First, in the visit of Karl Lindner, the white representative of the suburban community the Youngers were planning to move. There is also reflection and sharing of denigrating experiences of being trapped in low-skilled occupations due to racism. Throughout the film, we hear reflections from Walter Lee and his mother on their embarrassing labor for whites as servants. Thirdly, there is an ongoing discussion of an African identity versus the adoption of an assimilationist culture is expressed by Beneatha in her struggle with everyone.
We can also see the differences in class standing with class aspirations expressed throughout the play by Hansberry. George Murchinson is the son of a wealthy Black family and a university student. He expresses the bourgeois ideas of assimilation that Beneatha challenges with her African identity and Nationalist politics. The class antagonisms are sharpened with Walter Lee Younger’s drunken dialogue with the young Murchinson and his criticism of bourgeois consciousness among Black college students.
The question of self-determination is an important question for me concerning people of African descent. Two characters act as unseen forces that have a dramatic effect on the family as it struggles to survive. Again there is the deceased Walter Younger who leaves the family waiting for a $10,000 check. Then there is Wiley, the so-called friend who steals the money from both Walter Jr. and Bobo. Asagai, the Nigerian student who courts Beneatha, makes a sharp point in the play when he explains to her that she should not worry about something (the money) that she did not work for or shape. This is a key point because Hansberry is expressing a criticism of her culture about ideas of freedom and how it will not be handed to us but struggled for by our own minds and hands. “I did not make this world, it was given to me this way” are the words out of Walter Lee’s mouth as he presents a character unwilling to take responsibility in shaping the future.
For African Americans, the limitations to opportunity during segregation and the structural racism of the north will leave dreams without realization. We witness this as we see Hansberry’s family go through multi-generational poverty. Both Walter Sr. and Jr. had their dreams deferred as Sr. did not see his dreams in his lifetime and Jr. did not see his investment plan workout. As said earlier, aspirations were generationally different as expressed through a dialogue between Lena Younger and her son Walter.
In that dialogue, they expressed the differences in Black perspectives where Lena’s generation wanted freedom from racism and segregation as Walter Jr. was only concerned with economic advancement. Hansberry was making a point to state that his generation valued material advancement as being equal to freedom and self-determination. I think Hansberry was trying to grapple with the changes that African American communities were going through as a result of the transformation of society that she was witnessing.
The play can bring different feelings to viewers as we are brought into a disappointing scenario with the Youngers loosing their money. But we watch them move on with hope that they will succeed through “work hard” as they close the door to their ghetto apartment and head to the suburbs. What is Hansberry’s point? Is there really a happy ending or another story where Black people say, “We have a long way to go…”
The play brings two films to mind. THE SALT OF THE EARTH (1953) and BELLY (1996). BELLY (starring rappers DMX and Nasir Jones) was a film by young Hip-Hop director Hype Williams. It depicted the story of two young Black men (the generation born between 1969-1984) who are involved in the underground economy of drugs and explain their involvement (like Walter Younger’s explanation) as only a reflection of what life presented to them. This is very reminiscent of Walter’s scheme to open a liquor store with Willy and Bobo despite the protest of its contribution to the community’s deterioration. Like BELLY, the play presented an African-centered perspective as an alternative to the realities that confronted their characters.
THE SALT OF THE EARTH is a similar movie in that class, race and gender are tackled as in Hansberry’s play. The main difference is that SALT is more of a liberatory film (with a victory) whereas RAISIN had you wondering what was going to happen to the Youngers. The approach to sexism was treated differently as Esperanza Quintero seized her power whereas the women in RAISIN did not.
In conclusion, Hansberry gave a very intimate depiction of the Black family. The play tackled issues of patriarchy (sexism and homophobia), poverty and white supremacy. The daily human challenges of family responsibility and love became harsher struggles in the face of inner city poverty and the threats of white racism. We also looked at the transformation of the challenges of an older generation of working poor in comparison to a younger generation’s challenges. Lorraine Hansberry’s play gave great Black cultural insight into the struggles that came before the Hip-Hop generation that was born.