In “Lost Ones,” Lauryn Hill wrote, “It’s funny how money change a situation.” The song is about a bad breakup, but money does change everything whether it’s lacking or in abundance. It doesn’t matter what race or ethnicity someone is, or where they live, or what time period they live in. Money does things to people. Period.
A great example of this is Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In the Sun, which chronicles what happens when the Youngers, a black American family, try to collect an insurance payout after the man of the house passes away. The play is both commentary on America just before the Civil Rights era and a tribute to Hansberry’s family and their experiences.
The play was first published in 1959, and has the distinction of not only being the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, but the longest-running, totaling 350 performances in its first iteration. Naturally, Raisin was snapped up by Hollywood right away, bringing most of the Broadway cast with it, and the film version was released in 1961. The play has been revived both on TV and the stage several times in the years since, starring such luminaries as Phylicia Rashad, Denzel Washington, and Sean Combs (of all people).
Raisin‘s basic plot is this: The Youngers are a tight-knit family living in a South Side apartment so tiny it doesn’t have its own bathroom. Lena (Claudia McNeill) is the matriarch, a steely-but-loving woman who wants to see her children build on the heritage she and her late husband fostered. Walter Jr. (Sidney Poitier) is married to Ruth (Ruby Dee), who’s pregnant with their second child. Travis (played by Steven Perry in the film), their son, is about nine or ten and a good kid. Beneatha (Diana Sands), Walter’s sister, is a college student with her eye on med school. The family is poor but not destitute, working various jobs like cleaning and taking in laundry.
The Youngers clash over what to do with the money. Walter wants to invest it in a liquor store because he sees it as sure money and feels as if he’s going nowhere. Lena doesn’t want him to because she sees it as morally slippery. Walter’s sister, Beneathea needs tuition for medical school and flirts with the idea of traditionalism instead of assimilation. Walter’s wife, Ruth is pregnant, so she’ll need money for doctor bills, and she very often feels caught in the middle when Lena and Walter disagree. Meanwhile, Lena thinks they could use the money to move to a house or at least a bigger apartment. The sky’s the limit…or is it?
Lena puts a down payment on a house in Clybourne Park. It’s a beautiful house with three bedrooms, a real kitchen, and a backyard, all of which feel palatial after the tiny South Side apartment. Most importantly, the house is solidly built and a good investment. There aren’t any other black families in the neighborhood, but the Youngers jump at the chance anyway, especially Ruth, who sees the house as freedom.
Not so fast, folks. Clybourne Park’s homeowner’s association sends in Karl Lidner (John Fiedler), an extremely nervous fellow who seems very nice until he tells the Youngers the neighborhood will buy the house from them if they promise not to move there. To make matters worse, Walter tries to invest the rest of the money in the liquor store only to have one of his business partners skip town, taking all the cash with him. The family has some choices to make.
Obviously, Raisin goes deeper than just finances. The Youngers, and Walter Lee in particular, struggle to decide what’s important in their lives. Do they move forward despite the naysayers, or should they stay where they are and maintain the status quo? What can Walter do to get out of his rut and maintain moral and personal integrity. I would say more but I don’t want to ruin it. The story is intense. It doesn’t pull any punches. And it definitely doesn’t resolve with all loose ends tied up in a purty little bow.
Lorraine Hansberry was inspired to write the play from her own experiences growing up in Chicago’s South Side. In 1937, her dad, Carl Hansberry, bought a three-story house on South Rhodes Avenue and was taken to court by the previous owner in 1940. At the time, Chicago was segregated according to what were called restrictive covenants, in which the residents of a neighborhood would agree in writing to a black family moving in. These covenants resulted in black families and other people of color being restricted to two narrow sections of the city.
Hansberry tried to argue that the covenant was invalid since ninety-five percent of the residents hadn’t signed it, but the judge ruled against him anyway. The excuse was precedence–in similar cases, courts always ruled in favor of the covenant. However, the decision was reversed by the Illinois Supreme Court, which argued that the earlier decision had been made in bad faith and there was insufficient reason to invalidate the sale. The Hansberry case is still talked about today because of its unusual outcome.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that restrictive covenants began to dissolve due to the lowered demand for homes by white families, and eventually they were declared illegal because they violated the Fourteenth Amendment. They also fostered a mob mentality against not only those who were victims of covenants but those who refused to sign them.
This situation made such a big impression on Lorraine Hansberry that she decided to write a play about it. She was married and living in New York City at the time, and after a lot of frustration and encouragement from her husband, A Raisin In the Sun was born.
Raisin was incredibly well-received, garnering four Tony nominations. It also spawned two sequels: Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, and Beneatha’s Place by Kwame Kwei-Armah, both of which take place after the events in Raisin. Sadly, Hansberry would never live to see the life her work took on, as she died of pancreatic cancer at the young age of thirty-five.
I first read Raisin in college, and the thing I remember thinking is how much I wished the Youngers could find a place where they could really settle instead of just existing. It kind of tore me apart, really.
Having read it again later in life, I still think that, but I also see who’s between the proverbial rock and hard place, who’s having trouble embracing reality, who’s having trouble looking past what they think is a dead end. I also see the uncertain freedom that happens when a poor person suddenly has money, even a little bit.
Race is definitely a factor in the characters’ motivations, but I see similar struggles in families of any race, and that’s why the play resonates with so many different types of people.
This is kind of an unusual “Stage To Screen” (less Stage-y stuff, more inspo) but the last couple of days have been unusual. There’s the election, of course, plus I started back to work today…yasss! It’s a good feeling to be on the job.
Okay, a surprise blogathon is coming up on Saturday, so I hope to see you then. Thanks for reading, all…
A Raisin In the Sun is available on DVD (1961) (2008) and Blu-ray (1961) from Amazon. The 1961 film can be rented or bought as a digital copy here. Script copies of the original play are also available.
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