A Raisin In The Sun is a play about an African-American family comprising of Mama, the matriarch of the family, her two grown children Beneatha (an aspiring doctor) and Walter (a limousine driver by day and an aspiring businessman by night), Walter’s wife Ruth, and his son Travis. The play opens with Mama waiting for an insurance cheque of ten thousand dollars. It is this money that the characters (save Travis) bicker and squabble over through the course of the play, yet it is not so much the money, but the dreams that are at stake here.
Dreams. If you could condense Lorraine Hansberry’s play into a word, it would be that. Mama dreams of moving the family out of the cramped, dilapidated two-room apartment the family resides in to somewhere more spacious and comfortable. Walter wants badly to escape his life as a limousine driver and to open a liquor store business with his friend Willy. Beneatha needs money to pay for her training and education as a doctor. Longsuffering Ruth, who later discovers she is pregnant, wants only the best for her family, but is ironically condemned by Walter repeatedly for “nagging” and for limiting his dreams. The play is driven by the conflicts and clashes the characters have with each other as they all seek to realize their dreams.
It is a compelling and powerful story, told not solely by plot and dialogue, but also by quiet moments of great intensity derived from the characters’ body language and the subtext. You could do a socioeconomic reading of it or bring race into the discussion, but I read Raisin fundamentally as a look at dreams, and how people struggle with themselves and those they love in order to realize them. How far will you go for a dream? How much does it hurt to give up yours, so that a loved one can realize his or hers? These are mere words on paper, but there were instances I found myself deeply and unexplainably moved.
There is a point in Act 2 when Walter and Ruth find themselves alone, tragically unable to understand or accept each other’s feelings. As Walter rages on about what he sees as Ruth’s continual “nagging”, the latter tries repeatedly to reach out to him and calm him down. We sense her resignation and loneliness when she asks her husband softly “why can’t you stop fighting me?” After Walter continues and then completes his barrage of accusations and complaints, we see Ruth helpless and utterly defeated, who asks her husband “What else can I give you, Walter Lee Younger?” Rather than tell us explicitly what happens, Hansberry often lets us fill in the moments ourselves. We sense more than see a character’s pain or dilemmas. It is a testament to her skill as a playwright that she does it so subtly, and yet to such devastating effect.
If you read the online reviews or the Wikipedia article about Raisin, what you will find are discussions about the themes, concerns and contexts of the play; whether it is applicable only to African-Americans, or if the play is truly ‘universal”; the awards and accolades the play has won, or the controversies it has sparked. Don’t read the play if you are interested in things like that, because you may find yourself shortchanged.
Read it for the little moments that catch you unawares – the secret, quiet instances between characters that tell of alienation, loss, sacrifice, but also love. In some way, A Raisin In The Sun is the story of us all, because it is the story of dreams, no matter how simple or complex, and all our struggles for them.