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Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Frustration of Dreams Deferred in ‘A Raisin in the Sun’, A Play by Lorraine Hansberry.

Reviewed by Mr. Roundsquare
[1]What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

Or does it explode?

Those are the three questions this play seeks to explore—and the answer could be deferred like a mirage. We all have dreams as did the late Martin Luther King—the dream to get published, to travel the world, to own a home, to pursue a PhD, start and run a successful business, have a lovely family, and other endless etceteras.   
The American dream means having faith in the ideal that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is possible to those able to work hard for them. For many, the dream does come true. For many it does not. Lorraine Hansberry's sensational success in staging this play illustrates the realization of this dream, while her death from cancer—at 34 just six years after the publication and first production of Raisin in the Sun—was an antithesis to that dream, and robbed both the literary and dramatic worlds of one promising great writer.
Hansberry, like some of her African-American ancestors, experienced the rough side pursing that dream. Many had fled the bitter life of the South, but only found exploitation and disappointment in the North, and the dream turned into a nightmare. This classic play attempts to capture this kind of nightmare—and interprets the predicament of all that have failed dreams—personified in the travails of the Younger family, struggling to actualise the American dream by escaping ghetto life. The story goes beneath the surface and confronts the reader to reflect how many of our dreams are erected on false foundations.
The family, struggling and cramped into a tiny apartment on the self-segregated world of 1950s in the South Side of Chicago, have its conflicting dreams revolving around money. The plot and dream is built on the shoulders of their late patriarch Walter Younger Sr., where in anticipating the arrival of his $10,000 life-insurance check, would leave the entire family bitterly battling for top priorities!
The reader’s attention shifts to the different ways each family member envisions the dream of a better life. For Walter Jr., the stubborn son, that money means investing in liquor business that would put him out of his servile chauffeur job; for his wife Ruth, it means a home better than the overcrowded apartment they all share with ‘bats and rats’; for his sister Beneatha, the intelligent and often defiant daughter, this money would pave the avenue to a medical school and perhaps become a doctor. The mother who is the matriarch wishes to fulfil her and Mr. Younger's lifelong dream of owning a house in the plush upmarket. The clash-over-competing-dreams storyline is only too familiar!      
They consider different possibilities on how quickly to cross the poverty line but, when Mama opts to put a down payment on a house in an all white community, Mr. Lindner, a soon-to-be neighbour pays them a visit. Acting ignorantly and subconscious of racism, he and the rest of the White Home Owners Association offer them money on condition that the Youngers quietly opt out of their neighbourhood. And as Hamlet put it, to be or not to be is the big question for the Youngers.   
Like in A Colour Purple, the play touches on common themes—the American dream, generation gaps, family, race relations, and identity. Mama's choice forces everyone to review their own identities as they face an unfamiliar future, one that could break or make the family. Ruth finds out she’s expectant, and her husband Walter keeps mum (from her over-religious Mama) over her decision to abort as this would cause further strain to their already shoe-string budget.
Beneatha is instrumental as a young girl desiring to break away from compressed and deferred dreams, and is a fictional personification of the author as a young, talented and black woman with big dreams. Using the Youngers’ story, the 29-year-old Ms. Hansberry takes us through the entire horizons of black American issues of beauty, identity and class. She dares the white Americans to break down the walls that impede African Americans in realising their dreams, and challenges her kind to reasonably redefine what those dreams ought to be. 

The Ghetto Trap
She revolves around the social issues of the 1950's that saw the surfacing of feminism, gender roles, the black family, and the pan-African movement, interlacing the actual events of her own life into the play. Ruth’s observation that ‘we've put enough [money] in this rat trap to pay for four houses by now,’ is not just an empty assertion considering the high costs of ghetto living. Indeed, cheap is expensive and everyone wishes to escape from the claustrophobic ‘tired,’ run-down, ‘rat traps’.
The kids play poverty games. Instead of hide and seek, Travis runs killing rats ‘as big as a cat’. Their house is roach-infested, and every Saturday morning—with all his homework undone—he’d exterminate the vermin by ‘spraying insecticide into the cracks in the walls’—household chores which would not occur in wealthier neighbourhoods. They are arrested inside this dirty tenement yard partly because of their poor-paying casual jobs and worse, their absentee landlords often do not maintain their property.
Has the breaking down of walls that separated this family from their dreams and driven the conflict inside the Younger family turned this epic play into a dramatic relic? Why does it still tower among its contemporaries and endure successful stage performances?

Its surface issues may have shifted yet this humane drama still works its magic on our emotions. As told through the crux of the Younger’s moment of crisis, it retains its relevance. The nature of the American dream hasn’t changed much, and these are the pertinent questions within the background of personal choice and individual valour. Each character tries to realize a meaningful life within a struggle against cultural barriers, and a scrutiny of their responses to these impediments, demonstrates the nature of their heroic qualities.
The play is action-packed with salty dialogue, and a cast of vibrant characters to captivate even the most digitalised teenager. Most youth rebel against their parents because of disappointing lives that give them little or no fulfilment. But, beneath the sceptical facade of the adolescent, beats the heart of an optimist desiring to believe in the beauty of their dreams—that indeed, they do materialise!
Through Hansberry's cautious craftsmanship, the problems of conflicting expectations and identity crisis in modern youth, often from broken families, requires as much spotlight as possible to the ethics found within a traditional family unit, and the play brings it out without of getting preachy.  Its being ‘so contemporary’ is because of Ms. Hansberry's skill to interweave enduring social issues, (the rise of second-wave feminism, probing the sex debate and gender roles, the American Blacks), throughout A Raisin in the Sun. 
Also standing out is pride in African heritage especially after the end of colonialism and the poor black family struggle to gain middle-class acceptance. But what happens when one assimilates? Does it improve the quality of life, or does it sacrifice and damage the spirit and soul of the person who accepts the culture of another ethnicity? This is the dilemma of A Raisin in the Sun.
The play was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and celebrated as ‘a watershed in American drama’.  The cast reveals how ties that bind families are not easily broken. With a happy ending, the play proves that family is always reliably there and can be dependable, to paraphrase Mama, ‘a family that prays together stays together, and the reverse is true!’   
It’s either working towards realising them, or soldiering on when they're crushed up into orange juice. The characters are real and situations more sincere. From the setting, literature meets history, and our appreciation of it is in learning the lesson that successes and dreams are twofold; many are beyond our reach, others within.

Despite the trepidations in this family, they finally realize by default that blood, however camouflaged, is still thicker than water and must come before any extreme—money or no—if you stick up for each other.  

Reading the book (can be devoured in one sitting!) makes one wonder why we see feuds in families, washing their dirty linen in public or throwing tantrums over petty things, when the only thing that matters is that we are still family at the end of the day. 
About the playwright
Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago on May 19, 1930, and died of cancer at the age of 34. A Raisin in the Sun, her first play, was also the first Broadway production written by an African-American woman and the first by an African-American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (1959). It was subsequently made into a film (1961), for which she wrote its screenplay but only partially used by David Susskind, the film's director and producer, a musical (1973), and a PBS television production for American Playhouse (1989). Although deeply committed to the African-American human rights struggle, Hansberry was not a militant writer. Her only other completed play is The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964). Another drama, Les Blancs (1970) was adapted after her death by her husband and Broadway producer Robert Nemiroff. He also compiled her writings in To be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words (1969), also presented as an off-Broadway drama in 1969.
The Original 1959 Broadway Cast had Sidney Poitier as Younger Jr. while the 2004 Revival Broadway Cast featured the famed singer-cum-actor Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, who also starred in the 2008 Television Film, the first television movie to ever premiere at the Sundance Film festival.

[1] The opening lines of Langston Hughes' Harlem which inspired the title and theme of Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking 1956 play.

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