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The play opens in an apartment worn down from generations of ownership. It’s in the South Side of Chicago, and it’s a three-room apartment – there’s a bedroom for Mama and Beneatha, a bedroom for Ruth and Walter Lee, and their son Travis sleeps on a couch in a living room.
Ruth Younger is preparing for the day. She wakes up and feeds her son Travis and husband Walter.
While Travis is in the bathroom, which is also the bathroom the neighbors use, his parents discuss the check coming in the mail.
What check, you ask? Don’t worry; you’re not supposed to know what they’re talking about just yet.
The family doesn’t seem all that happy. Ruth in particular is indifferent and irritable.
Travis requests fifty cents for school, but Ruth insists that he go without. Ruth succeeds in teasing him into giving her a kiss good-bye.
Travis asks for permission to carry groceries at the supermarket after school for money. Then his daddy hands him a dollar while staring pointedly at Ruth in a how-do-you-like-this kind of way.
Ruth is not a happy camper.
After Travis leaves, Walter brings up a business plan he and his friends are concocting, which triggers an argument between the married couple.
Walter says that he wants to partner up with his friends Willy Harris and Bobo to open up a liquor store. It sounds rather shady, but Walter continues dreaming of it as a way out of poverty.
Ruth keeps telling him to eat his eggs.
Water gets angry; he wants his wife to nod, smile, and support him.
Beneatha Younger, also referred to as Bennie, emerges from the left bedroom.
She wants to use the bathroom but those dratted neighbors and their bodily functions prevent her from doing so.
So she stands around and chats with her brother Walter, by which we mean Walter tells her, "woman, what kind of woman studies medicine?" He also points out that her tuition money will cut into the insurance check.
Aha! Insurance check. We find out that the big Check they’re all waiting for is from when Mama’s husband (also known as Bennie and Walter’s father) passed away. It’s for $10,000, which this family could come up with about a million different uses for.
Bennie argues that the check belongs to Mama, and Walter leaves for his job as a chauffeur. After asking Ruth for carfare (his money went to Travis, remember?), he leaves for work.
Lena (a.k.a. Mama) enters and makes a beeline for a plant she keeps outside the kitchen window (which, by the way, is the only window in the apartment).
Despite Ruth’s earlier argument with Walter, she backs the liquor store idea to her mother-in-law. Ruth argues that Walter needs this chance.
Mama points out that Ruth looks dead tired and she should stay home from work; Ruth says they need the money.
Mama says they’re all too obsessed with money.
Ruth argues that the money belongs to Mama, and suggests that she take a trip to Europe or South America. Mama isn’t keen on the idea. She says some of the money will definitely go towards Beneatha’s education, and then that some of it could also go towards the down payment on a house.
Mama reminisces about her husband, whom she refers to as Big Walter, and their big dreams of buying a house. We learn that Big Walter was a hard-working man who loved his children but was never able to fulfill his dreams.
Beneatha re-enters and mentions guitar lessons, setting off her mom and Ruth on her case about "flitting" around trying too many activities. Beneatha claims her right to express herself.
The ladies discuss Beneatha’s romantic prospects and her date with George Murchison that night.
Beneatha thinks he’s shallow, but the other women in her family approve of him, mainly because he’s got money.
Beneatha concludes the discussion by announcing that she’s not worried since she doesn’t even know if she’ll get married, which Lena and Ruth really wanted to hear. Not.
Beneatha continues on to announce that she does not believe in God, and that only humans can make miracles happen. For which Mama gives her a big fat SLAP.
Mama asserts her right as head of the household and makes Beneatha repeat her faith in God.
Beneatha then leaves.
The two mothers in the family are alone, and Ruth tries to mollify Mama’s worries about her children. Mama is overwhelmed by their ambitions – Walter cares only for money, and Beneatha is too intellectual.
Mama goes to water her plant, voicing her desire to one day have a garden and a back yard.
When she turns around, she finds Ruth lying semiconscious.