A Raisin in the Sun

by Wallace Bridges, Fulbright Scholar

Lorraine Hansberry’s milestone American play, A Raisin in the Sun, opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York on March 11, 1959. The production was a turning point in American theatre. It was the first play by an American female playwright of African descent to open on Broadway. Lloyd Richards directed, becoming the first American of African descent to helm a Broadway production.

The play holds a special place in my heart, as well: I have read, seen, taught, acted in and directed it numerous times over the decades. My first recollection is from the 1960s, when I saw the original film version with Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil and Ruby Dee. The film made quite an impression on me, and Poitier’s performance helped me realize that I could possibly act as well.

After that I read the play and found it curious that I wasn’t being taught about it in the public schools. Finally, in the late 1970s, the Lawton (Oklahoma) Community Theatre produced the play and I was cast as Walter Lee. In the 1980s I was again inspired by the American Playhouse television version of the play starring Danny Glover and Esther Rolle. In the 1990s I first directed the production as a professor at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), where I continue to teach today. Now, as a Fulbright Scholar teaching at the University of Ghana-Legon, I will direct A Raisin in the Sun there in April. Coincidentally, I was brought into the Purple Rain Foundation/U.S. Embassy Accra production to be presented at the National Theatre this Friday, February 19. My Fulbright project will culminate when I again direct A Raisin in the Sun at EMU and produce a documentary comparing and contrasting my EMU and University of Ghana directing experiences.

Set in “the present” between World War II and 1959, the play tells the story of the Youngers, a black family living in a cramped apartment on the Southside of Chicago. Family patriarch Walter, Sr. has recently passed away, leaving behind his widow Lena (Mama), son Walter Lee, college-aged daughter Beneatha, and Walter’s Lee’s wife and son.

As the play opens, the family anticipates receiving a $10,000 life insurance check. Mama must use the money the best way she can to help her family overcome their impoverished living conditions and achieve a better way of life.

Mama wants Walter Lee, a menially employed chauffeur, to assume his role as the new patriarch of the family. Walter believes the best way to achieve the family’s dreams is to invest the insurance money into a liquor store. And here lies the main conflict of the play: how to wisely invest the money to secure the family’s dream of a better life.

The circumstances of A Raisin in the Sun are partly autobiographical. Hansberry’s father was a real estate broker in Chicago during the 1930s and 1940s. He and his lawyers challenged the racially restrictive covenants that white neighborhoods used to bar Americans of African descent from living there. The result was his historically successful Supreme Court case, Hansberry v. Lee, 1940.

The play’s themes encompass important social issues such as family responsibility, racial segregation, upward mobility, Christian and moral values, multi-generational households, cramped tenement housing, male/female relationships, music appreciation, African culture and more. Generational and moral attitudes are challenged when Mama resists giving Walter the insurance money to purchase the liquor store. Beneatha, who I believe represents Hansberry, pursues her college education in order to become a doctor so she can help others. She struggles with whether to engage in a romantic relationship with a rich American of African descent, or with a Nigerian who has the potential of “connecting her to her roots.”

It was in 1955, the same era as the play, that the NAACP and Martin Luther King, Jr. encouraged Rosa Parks to remain seated near the front of a racially segregated Montgomery, Alabama, bus, sparking the Civil Rights Movement. Sixty years later, audiences will note that the circumstances in A Raisin in the Sun still relate not only to the contemporary social conditions of Americans of African descent, but also to Ghanaians and Africans in general who struggle to achieve a better way of life.

A Raisin in the Sun will be performed at the National Theatre in Accra on Friday, February 19, and at the University of Ghana-Legon April 14–16 and 21–23, 2016.

Wallace Bridges is a professor in the School of Communication, Media and Theatre Arts at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He is currently serving as a Fulbright Scholar in the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Ghana-Legon. Any opinions expressed by the author are his alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. Embassy or the U.S. government. If you have questions or particular stories you’d be interested in reading about on our blog, we invite you to leave a comment below.