Monday 6 July 2015

Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun"

"What happens to a dream deferred?  Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" (Harlem, Langston Hughes)

The home the Hansberry's purchased in the Washington Park neighbourhood of Chicago circa 1937 courtesy

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the daughter of a teacher and real estate broker, was born in Chicago.  Her parents purchased a house in the upper middle class, all-white neighbourhood of Washington Park.  Because they were black, Lorraine described their reception as "hellishly hostile".  Most people would have moved out, but the Hansberry's dug their heels in and refused to budge.  Three years later, in the case of Hansberry vs. Lee, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the Hansberry's could not stay in Washington Park.  However, it was overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled that the Hansberry's could stay.

In 1951, Lorraine came upon a poem written by Langston Hughes with the lines:  "What happens to a dream deferred?  Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"  She used the line as a title for her play, based on a black family who buys a house in an all white neighbourhood and is pressured to leave. The road to success was not easy:  it took over a year for the producer to raise enough funds to bring the play to Broadway.  But on March 11, 1959, "A Raisin in the Sun" debuted at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, starring Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee Younger and Ruby Dee as his wife and Claudia McNeil as his mother, Lena.  It enjoyed a successful run of 530 performances.

"A Raisin in the Sun" explored territory never before explored on the American stage.  It was the first play to be written by a black female to be performed on Broadway.  Lorraine Hansberry did not think that it would be a success, given that it "introduced details of black life to the overwhelmingly white Broadway audiences."  However, the people kept buying tickets; it ran for 530 performances.  After closing, Lorraine Hansberry's play was adapted for the big screen in 1961, also starring Sidney Poitier.  

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