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A Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry and produced on stage in 1959, marks a watershed moment in American theater. On the face of it, A Raisin in the Sun was not destined for success. With only one white cast member, an inexperienced director, and an untried playwright, Hansberry had difficulty finding financial backing for the play at a time when theater audiences were overwhelmingly white. It was an immediate success, however, and after several tours, it opened on Broadway, making it the first-ever Broadway play written by an African-American woman.
What makes Hansberry’s writing remarkable is not only her accuracy in capturing the racial dynamics of her time, but her foresight in predicting the direction black culture would take in subsequent years. The play's setting covers a pivotal time period for race relations in America – after WWII and before 1959. When Americans fought in World War II, they were fighting to uphold equality for all…which exposed the hypocrisy of the very unequal conditions for blacks back home. Americans were only beginning to address these inequalities at the time Hansberry was writing, and she did a great job at capturing the mood of her time through only one family.
As discussed in the "What’s Up with the Epigraph?" section, the Younger family’s fulfillment/non-fulfillment of their dreams mirrors how black Americans as a whole had gained some concessions while still being oppressed in other respects. A character like Beneatha, however, is way ahead of her time. The play opened in 1959, remember, which is before all the feminists started demanding their rights, and before black Americans began embracing Africa as part of their identity. Beneatha embodies both movements before they ever existed.
One last note: A Raisin in the Sun is part of broader shift in black art towards depicting working-class, ordinary African-Africans. Previously, black intellectuals did not use literature, art, or the stage to portray working-class African-Americans for fear they would perpetuate undesirable stereotypes. Both poet Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry thought this was ridiculous; they felt that writing about lower class African-Americans would actually debunk the stereotypes. By focusing on the dreams and aspirations of one particular working-class black family, moreover, Hansberry was able to show audiences the universality of black aspirations while also demonstrating that their race posed a significant barrier to achieving those goals.
Don’t worry, Shmoopster, we are not taking you to Algebra class. We are not even going to make you play a rousing game of Boggle. We are instead going to turn you into detectives. Follow us, as we take you into A Raisin in the Sun’s attic, where every single word from the play is stored, carefully wrapped, and inventoried. That’s right, folks, we have tallied every word that appears in A Raisin in the Sun, and what you see above is a list of some of the biggest stars, the most noteworthy words.
Why would we do this? Well, we know this is a play about dreams (see “What’s Up with the Title”), dreams that are put on hold or made impossible by society. We know it is a play about fighting to make dreams come true. And that seems like a pretty good reason to care about this play. After all, we humans are expert dreamers. But we want to know what exactly this play is trying to tell us about the art of dreaming. So let’s take a gander.
The first thing we notice in our tally is how infrequently the words “dream” or “dreams” actually appear. Only fourteen times. This perplexes our detective minds, because we thought dreams were the star of the show. It looks like there are other things (and words) that get in the way.
We notice how often the word “I” shows up – 536 times. This makes sense to us – dreams can’t happen without an “I” involved. But “I” doesn’t hold a candle to the word “you,” which surfaces a whopping 794 times, earning a gold medal in word count. “We” and “they” appear a good deal too, but not nearly as much as “I” and “you.” From this, we can deduce that individual choices must matter a lot when it comes to dreaming.
So what does all of this tallying tell us? That individual choices can make or break dreams. In A Raisin in the Sun, Walter destroys the family dream by losing their money, but then restores the dream again by standing up to Karl and deciding the family should remain in their new neighborhood. So dreaming is a complicated and frustrating art, but it can lead to incredible victories. If we need a lesson on dreaming and on being brave enough to dream, a great first stop on the literary highway is A Raisin in the Sun.
A movie version of A Raisin in the Sun with Sidney Poitier as Walter Younger.
2008 TV Movie
This made for TV movie stars Sean Combs (yes, the former P. Diddy) as Walter Younger.
A Movie Trailer for A Raisin in the Sun
Wow, this is the way they used to do movie trailers?
A Poster for the Play
A recent poster for the Broadway play with the cast from the 2008 TV Movie.
An example of set design in one production of the play.