Set in the aftermath of World War II, the Younger family is facing its own war against racism in the Chicago slums. America’s complicated history of racial tension between black Americans and white Americans is ingrained into the Youngers’ everyday lives. Single mother (and grandmother) Lena Younger, her daughter Beneatha, and her son Walter (plus his wife Ruth and their son Travis) squeeze into a run-down two-bedroom apartment. According to our count, that’s five people in a space built for three.
Not only do these characters feel confined by their physical home space, they also feel restricted by the social roles they’ve been assigned. For example, socially-progressive Beneatha (Bennie) studies to become a doctor, despite the financial strain it puts on the low-income family. Walter works as a chauffeur for a white man, but he dreams of opening a liquor store with his buddies and making more money for his family. His wife Ruth draws no attention to her own desires, cleaning up after the rest of the family members as well as the houses where she works. Toward the beginning of the play, we learn that Ruth is pregnant, which only complicates the family situation. The family is not affluent enough to provide for another life, so Ruth prepares to abort her child.
But the Youngers have a chance at a new beginning. Ten thousand dollars is coming in the mail, and Lena must decide what to do with it. Bennie hopes for tuition money, Walter hopes for the down payment on his liquor store, and Ruth just wants her family to be happy. Then three huge events happen: 1) Lena decides to buy a house for the family…in a white neighborhood, 2) Lena entrusts the rest of the money to Walter, advising him to save a good amount for Beneatha’s schooling, and 3) Walter loses all the money in the liquor store scam. Morale goes from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.
When a white man, Karl, comes to buy out the Youngers’ new house, Walter figures that giving in to The Man is the only way to get some money for his family. In the play’s climactic moment, Walter must decide between standing up for his family’s rights and standing up for his ego and role as the breadwinner of the family. Fortunately for the Youngers, and for Broadway history, Walter sides with his family’s rights and declines Karl’s offer. The family will move into their new home.