Text Messages | Playwright, interrupted

The young writer of the play ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ drew on her own life and on a famous poem by Langston Hughes to create one of the foundational works of 20th century theatre.

Imagine this for a life story. You are eight. Your father, an estate agent, buys a house in which he, your mother and your three siblings will live. Your new neighbours object; they are white, you and your family are black. The neighbours take legal action against your father’s purchase of the house. The case moves through the legal system, right up to the highest court in the land.

The judges rule that the current, racially restrictive covenant can be opposed. It is a judgment drawing on the previous case in the suburb, in which 46% of homeowners did not support the exclusion of black residents. On the basis that excluding black residents does not reflect the view of those 46%, your family are able to move in.

Eight years later, your father dies. He had been a supporter of an association to advance the interests of black people. You battle past his loss, go to high school and university. A few years after graduating, you move to the arts, business and culture capital of the country. There, you find work at Freedom Newspaper, a publication dedicated to issues that black people face.

You marry two years later, your husband being Jewish and a songwriter, political activist and publisher. Two months before your 29th birthday your first play opens, on Broadway. It is the first play by an African American woman to be staged on Broadway. Its critical success earns you the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play. You are the youngest-ever winner of the award and only the fifth woman. In the next two years, your groundbreaking play travels the world in translations (35) and is widely performed in many languages.

Just under five years later, on 12 January 1965, you die from pancreatic cancer, aged 34. At your funeral, three days later, your family friend and sometime employer at Freedom Newspaper, the actor and activist Paul Robeson, delivers one of the eulogies.

The presiding minister reads messages from the great writer James Baldwin and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. It happens also to be King’s 40th birthday. His message reads: “Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.”

African American activists

Lorraine Hansberry was born on 19 May 1930. The title of her first play, A Raisin in the Sun, she took from a line in the poem by Langston Hughes, Dream Deferred (see below). Hughes had been a visitor to Hansberry’s childhood home in Chicago along with Robeson, the intellectual WEB du Bois, the jazz musician and composer Duke Ellington and the athlete and Olympic gold medallist Jesse Owens.

Lorraine’s father Carl had been active in the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And the home that caused all the trouble when she was eight was in the Washington Park Subdivision on the South Side of Chicago; it was to live again in A Raisin in the Sun.

The play looks at the Younger family, like the Hansberrys an African American family living on the South Side of Chicago. There is a time difference: the play is set in the 1950s. Mr Younger has died and an insurance payment for $10 000 is about to come the family’s way.

They have differing ideas about how to use the money. His widow, Mama, thinks of buying a house. His son, Walter Lee, dreams of running a bottle store with his friends while Ruth, Walter’s wife, sides with Mama. His daughter, Beneatha, wants to further her medical studies. She is the sole character who envisions escaping her surroundings; she is the play’s advocate for finding African American identity.

The play is replete with observations about love and meaning. Below is its pithiest observation about life.

“So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life – now it’s money. I guess the world really do change …”– Mama.

And here is Hughes’ poem, which gave the play its title.

Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat Or crust and sugar over— Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

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