Hansberry welcomes us into the tiny apartment of the Younger family. This place is really cramped, especially with five people living in it. On stage we see the kitchen, which is so small that it's more like a closet. Most of the play's action goes down in the living room, which also serves as the dining room and Travis's makeshift bedroom.
There's access to two bedrooms on opposite sides of the apartment (one room shared by Mama and Beneatha, the other by Walter and Ruth). The bathroom is out in the hall; the Youngers are forced to share it with their neighbors, the Johnsons. So, yeah, you get the point – this place is small!
The incredibly close quarters of the Youngers' apartment definitely adds to the high tensions that run throughout the play. It's a wonder the family doesn't fight more than they already do, considering how on top of each other they're forced to live.
The tininess of the apartment definitely has a major effect on the action of the play early on. When Ruth finds out she's pregnant, she seriously considers having an abortion. If the baby is born, there just won't be anywhere for it to sleep. This thought is just too much for Mama, however. When she realizes what her daughter-in-law is considering, she marches straight out and purchases a new setting for her family to live in – the house in Clybourne Park.
Be sure to look at set design pictures in order to better visualize the space. To see how professional Scene Designers have brought the Younger apartment to life onstage, look online. (Or better yet, attend a theatre production.) Here's an example.
The neighborhood which the Youngers live in is particularly significant because, during the 1950s, it was primarily a poor neighborhood inhabited mainly by African Americans. Many blacks ended up in Chicago's Southside after migrating from the South, looking for work and seeking to escape racial discrimination.
Things were definitely better in the North on a lot of levels, but blacks still faced many challenges because of their race. As A Raisin in the Sun shows, white society made it very hard for African Americans to escape the cramped, vermin-infested apartment buildings of Chicago's Southside. There may not have been any law officially segregating the city, but unofficial segregation was still going on.
The exact year is never specified, but the play takes place in the 1950s. Probably, the most significant thing to think about as far as the time period goes is the status of race issues. A lot of progress had been made by this point in American history, but as A Raisin in the Sun shows, there was still a long, long way to go.
The 1950s was a sort of turning point in America, the decade that brought the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. During much of the 1950s, the South was segregated by racist Jim Crow laws. And, as we point out in our entry on the Southside, many African Americans faced unofficial racial barriers in the North. The racial tensions of the time period definitely fuel the conflicts of the play.
Beneatha's character, in particular, is grounded in the time period, as she deals with very timely socio-political issues. In a way, though, she is totally ahead of her time. We have no doubt that if Beneatha was still in the US around in the 1960s she would definitely be marching with Dr. King. Beneatha is also head of her time with the idea that African Americans should be more in touch their African roots. This became a major movement among black Americans later on in the '60s. With the character of Beneatha, Hansberry predicted (and possibly helped to spark) some major movements in American history.
Want to learn more about the historical context around this play? Check out these Shmoop US History learning guides:
Interested in studying another play about an African-American family set in the 1950s? If so, check out Shmoop's learning guide on August's Wilson's Fences.