“A Raisin in the Sun” is a 1959 play by Lorraine Hansberry. The title comes from a poem called “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. It was the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway and the first play to be produced with a black director. It was also the first play that began seeing a large number of black audience members.
The play has a cast that is primarily African-American, and thus, it was difficult to bring to Broadway in the 1950’s. However, when it finally premiered on March 11th, 1959, it was met with rave reviews. It ran for one year, initially and a total of 530 performances. In 1960, it was nominated for four Tony Awards and traveled overseas to London to premiere on the West End.
The play, which revolves around an African-American family’s decision on what to do with a large insurance payout from their late father, became an instant classic and had since been adapted into three films, two radio plays and one musical, among other things. It is still regularly revived on Broadway today.
Act I, Scene I
In a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago, the Younger family lives in poverty. There are five members of the family in only two rooms. One room is for the mother, Mama, and Beneatha, her grown daughter; one is for Ruth and her husband Walter Lee and the youngest member of the family, Travis sleeps on the couch. There is only one window in the apartment, and the bathroom is shared with the neighbors.
One morning, Ruth wakes and goes to make breakfast. She and Walter talk in the kitchen about a check that is coming, although they don’t go into detail. Travis asks them for some money to bring to school, and Ruth tells him that they do not have it. Walter frowns at her while he gives Travis a dollar.
After Travis leaves, Walter tells Ruth that he wants to use the check to invest in opening a liquor store with a few of his friends. Ruth argues with him about this, but she cuts him off to tell him to eat his breakfast. When Beneatha wakes and comes into the kitchen, it is revealed that the “check” that the family has been talking about is a large insurance payment for their father’s death.
Walter argues that Beneatha should drop out of school as her tuition will cut into the check, he also feels that studying medicine is not womanly enough. Beneatha tells him that the money will rightfully belong to their mother and that she will be the one who decides how it is spent. Walter leaves for work, having to ask Ruth for some money to get a taxi.
Mama wakes and begins fussing over Beneatha, whom she calls “Bennie” and subtly criticizing Ruth’s parenting of Travis. Mama asks what Walter and Beneatha were fighting about. In answer, Ruth asks her what she was planning to do with the money. Mama tries to change the subject as she says that it’s not Christian to talk about money so early in the day. It is revealed that the check amounts to ten thousand dollars, a staggering sum for the family and one that will make them rich.
Ruth tries to encourage Mama to take a trip to Europe, but Mama turns down this idea. Ruth asks again what she plans to do with the money and Mama says that intends to put some aside for Beneatha’s tuition. Ruth wonders if Mama might let Walter open his liquor store as it’s a personal dream of his. Ruth confesses that things have been rough between her and Walter and that he needs something that she can no longer give him. She thinks that owning his store with giving him back some of his confidence.
Mama isn’t sure that she wants to own something as immoral as a liquor store. She says that she wants to buy a house with the money and some land so that Travis can play. This was her late husband’s dream as well. Beneatha comes back into the room and tells the woman that she will be late returning from school because she is taking guitar lessons. The woman teases her about the various lessons that she takes and Beneatha insists that she is trying to express herself. They also tease her about the man that she has been dating, George Murchison.
Beneatha says that she isn’t sure that she is going to get serious with George because he is too shallow. Ruth points out that he is rich and Beneatha does not see this as a selling point for a husband. Beneatha says that it doesn’t matter because George’s family would not approve of her anyway. After an argument about using the Lord’s name in vain, Beneatha leaves for school and Mama and Ruth talk more about Walter. At the end of the act, Ruth suddenly faints.
Act I, Scene II
The following Saturday, the family is cleaning their apartment as they wait for the insurance check to arrive finally. Beneatha is spraying a heavily scented insecticide to kill the cockroaches, and Travis takes issue with this, arguing with her over the bad smell. She threatens to spray him with the bottle. Water talks on the phone to the friend that is helping him set up the liquor store. He promises the friend, named Willy that he will bring him the money when he receives the insurance check.
After he hangs up, the phone rings again. Beneatha talks to the person on the other end and invites them over to the apartment. Mama is not pleased that Beneatha is inviting people over to the apartment when they are still cleaning. Beneatha tells her that the person on the phone was a man named Joseph Asagai, an African boy that she has met at school. She tells Mama that Joseph doesn’t care what the house looks like because he is an intellectual.
Mama confesses that she doesn’t know anything about Africans and Beneatha reminds her that she donates money to them every week at church. Mama says that she does that for their religion salvation, but Beneatha argues that they are more in need in of political and civil salvation from the French and British.
Ruth returns from the doctor and announces to the women that she has found out that she is pregnant. Mama is pleased and hopes that the baby is a girl but both Ruth and Beneatha are more realistic about the strain that the baby will put on the household. When Mama asks if the doctor said that the baby was healthy, Ruth says that the doctor is a “she” and this arouses Mama’s suspicion. She asks what doctor Ruth went to and Ruth only gives her a meaningful look before Travis bursts into the room with youthful energy and interrupts the conversation.
Asagai visits and brings Beneatha some Nigerian clothing as a gift. Beneatha tries on one of the robes and Asagai questions her about her “American” hairstyle that has been chemically straightened. Beneatha confesses that her hair used to look like his, but she finds that too “raw.” Asagai teases Beneatha about trying to use him to find her African identity, then on a more series note, he confesses that he cares for her a great deal and wants to know if she feels the same for him. Beneatha says that she isn’t sure that she wants to find love and that she wants to become an independent woman. Asagai continues to tease her and Beneatha grows angry at his not taking her seriously.
Mama comes into the room, and Beneatha introduces her to Asagai. Asagai soon leaves and calls Beneatha “Alaiyo,” explaining that in his language it means, “One for whom bread is not enough.” Walter returns home and excitedly asks if the check came in the mail. Mama shows it to him, and he begins trying to convince her to invest in the liquor store again before Mama interrupts him and tells him that he needs to talk to his wife. Walter demands that she listen to him and Mama gets angry as she warns him not to yell at her and says that she won’t be talking about the liquor store again. Walter tries to storm out, and Ruth insists on coming with him, changing his mind, Walter is short with Ruth, and she eventually storms out on her own. Mama scolds Walter for talking angrily to his wife and asks him what is bothering him.
Walter explains that he is frustrated by his job and by the fact that he sees white men around his age in town with millions of dollars. Mama finally tells Walter that Ruth is pregnant and that she might be considering having an abortion. Ruth overhears the conversation and comes back into the room. She confesses that it’s true and that she has already given the abortion doctor a down payment. Walter is speechless, and Mama begins to get angry at him for not telling Ruth not to have an abortion. She yells at him that he is a disgrace to his father’s memory and storms out of the apartment.
Act II, Scene I
Later that day, Ruth is ironing when Beneatha comes out of her room wearing the Nigerian clothes that Asagai gave her. She begins to dance around and says that she is performing a tribal dance much to Ruth’s amusement. Walter enters, drunk and begins acting out joking, made-up tribal rituals with Beneatha. At one point he stands on the table and declares himself “The Flaming Spear.”
George Murchison comes to the apartment to pick up Beneatha for a date, and when Beneatha removes her headdress, the others realize that she has cut her hair, leaving a short Afro behind. Ruth is shocked and asks if she expects George to go out with her with her hair looking like that. Beneatha confidently says that the decision is up to George and that he can leave her behind if he is ashamed of his African heritage. This prompts an argument between George and Beneatha where she calls him “assimilationist.”
Eventually, Beneatha goes to change for their date and leaves George behind to talk to Walter. Walter tries to talk about his liquor store plans, but George isn’t interested. Feeling brushed aside, Walter makes fun of George’s “college” style outfit, and Ruth gets embarrassed by her husband’s brashness. George clearly thinks of Walter as uneducated and calls him “Prometheus.” After George and Beneatha leave, Walter and Ruth start to fight about him going out with Willy and getting drunk again. After acknowledging that they seem to have grown apart a bit, they begin to make up.
Entering the apartment, Mama tells them that she has put down a down payment on a house. Ruth is pleased to hear this, but Walter is upset as he wanted to put the entire check into the liquor store idea. However, when Mama tells them that the house is in a white neighborhood called Clybourne Park, Ruth changes her mind and begins to worry, too. Mama says that it was the only house in their price range. After talking for a bit longer, Ruth finds herself happy for the house again, but Walter tells his mother that she has crushed his dreams. He storms off into his bedroom.
Act II, Scene II
A few weeks later, Beneatha and George return from a date. The apartment is full of moving boxes. George tries to kiss Beneatha but she wants to discuss politics and the African-American’s plight. George gets exasperated as he doesn’t want to talk. Beneatha pushes him away and asks why he goes to school or reads books if he doesn’t want to talk about the things that he learns. He tells her that he reads books to pass his courses, not to think about them afterward. Beneatha accuses him of wanting a nice, simple girl. She asks him to leave just as Mama comes into the room. Mama asks Beneatha if she enjoyed her date and Beneatha says that George is a fool. Mama supports her, telling her that she shouldn’t waste her time with a fool and Beneatha appreciates this.
The Younger’s neighbor, Mrs. Johnson. An enthusiastic woman, Mrs. Johnson pats Ruth’s stomach and tells her that she is starting to “poke out” from her pregnancy. Mama clearly does not appreciate Mrs. Johnson’s double-edged remarks as she asks about the family and implies that they think that they are better than her now because they’re moving to a rich neighborhood.
She tells them of another black family living in a neighborhood that was threatened and finally bombed out of their house. She assumes that the family will be scared of their white neighbors once they move in and insults them by calling them “proud-acting.” Before leaving, Mrs. Johnson quotes famous early African-American educator, Booker T. Washington and Mama, frustrated, calls Washington a fool. Beneatha tells Mama not to get frustrated, saying that if there are two things that their people have to overcome, it is the Klu Klux Klan and people like Mrs. Johnson.
Walter’s boss calls and tells Ruth that Walter has not shown up for work in three days. Ruth hangs up and tells Walter that if he doesn’t go to work the next day they are going to fire him. Walter confesses that he has been wandering all day and drinking all night. He feels depressed and like he is failing in his job as the man of the family. He feels that his job as a chauffeur is not better than a job for a slave. Feeling guilty over his unhappiness, Mama agrees to give him what remains of the insurance money, 6,500 dollars. She tells him to keep half and deposit the other half for Beneatha’s tuition.
Walter suddenly becomes enthusiastic again and tells Travis that he is going to make them rich. He begins describing his plans to give them a big house with multiple cars and a college education for his son.
Act II, Scene III
A week later, it is moving day. Ruth and Beneatha talk about what they are going to do when they get to the new house. Ruth says that Walter has been acting like a new man and that they even went on a date the night before. Walter enters, and he and Beneatha tease each other good-naturedly.
A middle-aged white man in a business suit knocks on the door. He tells them that his name is Karl Linder and he is from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. Linder edges around the reason for his visit before coming to the point and telling the family that the white residents of Clybourne Park are threatened by the idea of a black family moving into their neighborhood. He says the Association is offering to buy them out by offering more money than they paid for the house in exchange for them agreeing not to move into the neighborhood.
The family becomes understandably upset, Walter manages to control his anger long enough to tell Mr. Linder that they are refusing his offer and to leave the apartment, which he does. Mama returns home shortly, and Ruth, Walter, and Beneatha are all still stewing over the visit. They tell her what happened and she is proud of them for refusing the money.
The family shows their appreciation for Mama by giving her gifts of gardening tools and a garden hat, and she is touched by their show of love. But the celebratory mood is halted when Walter’s friend, Bobo stumbles in and confesses to Walter that Willy has run off with all of the money that they gave him to start the liquor store.
Walter invested not only the half that Mama gave him but also the other half of the money that was meant for Beneatha’s tuition. The family is furious as Walter and Mama begin to hit him in the face before Beneatha manages to break them up. Mama is suddenly overcome by weakness as she thinks about all of the hard work that her husband had to go through to earn that money. She calls for strength from God.
The final act starts one hour after the end of Act II. It is still moving day, but now everyone in the apartment is despondent with the loss of the money.
Asagai comes to help pack and Beneatha tells him about Walter losing the money. Beneatha questions her choice of becoming a doctor; she no longer feels that she can help people. She thinks there is too much misery in the world and there’s no point in doing anything about it.
Asagai scolds her about being so hung up on the money and about letting her first hurdle completely destroy her sense of idealism. He asks her to come back to Africa with him and enact some positive change there. She is overwhelmed by the suggestion, and Asagai leaves her alone to think about the idea.
Walter suddenly rushes out of the apartment and Beneatha sarcastically wonders where he is going. Mama comes in and tells Ruth and Beneatha that they are not going to move. Walter has asked Mr. Linder back and agreed to take his offer. Ruth and Beneatha object, pointing out how shameful this is. Amid the objections, Walter becomes agitated and tells them that he is going to pretend to be a stereotypical black male servant to Mr. Linder to convince him to give them the money. Mama says that she feels dead inside. Beneatha is so ashamed of Walter that she says that he is no longer her brother, but Mama reminds her that she still has to love him.
However, when Mr. Linder arrives, Walter suddenly has a change of heart again, making a speech about their family and how hard working and proud they are. He tells Mr. Linder that they are going to move into the house and that the racists of the neighborhood can’t stop them. Mr. Linder leaves in a huff, and the family finishes packing their things. Mama says that she thinks that Walter has finally grown up and Ruth agrees that she is proud of her husband.
Once the apartment is empty, Mama looks over the empty room for a moment before leaving.
Mama Younger – she is matriarch of the Younger family. Mama is an older woman who is dedicated to her family but not afraid to call them on their mistakes. Throughout the play, Mama is the cornerstone of the family, the person that Walter, Ruth, and Beneatha bring their problems to and look to for advice. Mama only wishes to bring her children happiness, she is protective of her grandson and loves her daughter-in-law although she does have a tendency to over-supervise her parenting.
Mama is also a highly religious woman, who often looks to God throughout the play and asks for him to give her strength. She is irritated with Beneatha for taking the Lord’s name in vain. Despite the fact that her children are grown adults, Mama still disciplines them as they live under her roof, and puts them in their place when she needs to. Mama is ultimately a caring, forgiving woman who loves her family and wishes to do honor to the memory of her late husband.
Beneatha Younger – the sister of the Younger family. Beneatha is a 20-year-old college student who is studying to be a doctor. Her family – save Walter, supports her in this decision and her mother is intent on helping with her tuition bills by using her father’s insurance payout. A big aspect of Beneatha’s character is her interest in the plight of African-Americans and in her identity as a black woman. She enjoys learning about African culture from Asagai and seems to be making attempts to get back to her African heritage. In doing this, she wears the Nigerian robes that Asagai brought her and cuts off her chemically straightened hair into a short Afro.
Beneatha receives a lot of negative feedback from her brother, Ruth, and George for this but she confidentially insists on going ahead with her course of embracing her heritage. Beneatha is intent on making a difference in the world and changing people’s lives for the better as a doctor. This drive only falters when she discovers that Walter has lost their father’s insurance money at the end of the play. Asagai offers to bring Beneatha back to Africa with him to help people there, and the play ends before she reveals her decision.
Walter Younger – the son of the Younger family. Walter is a dreamer and aspires to be a rich man like the white men that he sees during his job as a chauffeur. He is also ashamed of his low-paying job, the families small house and the fact that he feels that he is not living up to his father’s memory as the man of the family.
In trying to better their circumstances, Walter lends 6,500 dollars to a friend to open a liquor store that he is convinced will make him a rich man. Of course, the friend runs off with the money and Walter is left twice as ashamed as he was before. In the end, however, he rebuffs Linder’s offer to take the money that the Association is offering not to move into the white neighborhood one last time and gives a triumphant speech about the family’s pride.
Ruth Younger – Walter’s wife. Ruth is a struggling mother who helps take care of the family. Throughout the play, Ruth is mostly concerned with the fact that she feels that she and her husband have grown apart because of his depression and shame over their financial situation. At the beginning of the play, Ruth discovers that she is pregnant and, rather than bring another child into their already overcrowded house, begins seeking an abortion. However, after Mama puts a down payment on a bigger house, Ruth does not talk about the abortion again.
In the end, she and Walter seem to find common ground through his refusal of Linder’s offer.
Lorraine Hansberry Biography
Lorraine Hansberry was born May 19th, 1930 in Chicago, Illinois. The youngest of four children, Hansberry was the child of a real-estate broker and a driving school teacher.
As a black person in 1938, Hansberry’s father was so successful at this work that he bought a house in a white neighborhood in the Washington Park Division in Chicago. This incurred the wrath of the white people of the neighborhood, who were threatened by a black family moving in. The fight got so heated that it eventually became a court case that went all the way to the U.S Supreme Court. Hansberry’s father died when she was only 15, and she later asserted that “American racism helped kill him.”
Growing up, Hansberry’s house was regularly visited by prominent black intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During her time there she became very politically active and regularly protested against injustices, managing to integrate an existing dormitory.
In 1948, she worked on the presidential campaign of Henry A. Wallace and the next year she spent the summer in Mexico at the University of Guadalajara studying art. In 1950, she moved to New York and began attending The New School, later moving to Harlem. Still heavily involved in activism, she fought against evictions of African-American’s by the wealthy white landowners.
The next year, she began writing for the black newspaper Freedom, traveling all over the country to cover civil rights cases in court as well as struggles with African colonialism. She was particularly interested in the rights of black women in America and other countries. In 1952, she attended a peace conference in Uruguay.
In 1953, she married Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish political activist, and publisher and the two moved to Greenwich Village. She was an activist for gay rights and may have been a closeted lesbian, herself if some of her secret writings and journals are to be believed. In 1957, she began writing her most well-known work, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’, and later brought it to Broadway, where she became the first black woman to ever produce a play on the stage.
At only 29, she was still very young and became the youngest American playwright to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play. “Raisin” became a huge success and was played all over the world.
In 1960, she was commissioned by the TV channel NBC to write a program about slavery, and although her submission was called “superb,” it was ultimately rejected. Throughout the early 1960’s, Hansberry attempted to direct a Broadway musical called “Kicks and Co” which ultimately never made it to production. In 1963, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and underwent two unsuccessful operations to remove cancer.
The next year, Hansberry divorced her husband although the couple continued to work together amicably. On January 12th, at the age of only 34, Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer. Her funeral was held in Harlem several days later and attended by, among others, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. She was buried at Asbury United Methodist Church Cemetery in New York.