A Raisin in the Sun
Lorraine Hansberry
(L. A. Theatre Works/
Audio Theatre Collection)
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore ---
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over ---
Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

--- Langston Hughes

A Raisin in the Sun was first produced on off-Broadway in 1959 with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. This present version was recorded in 2011 by the L. A. Theatre Works.

Raisin is one of those plays you hear about repeatedly and never get around to reading or seeing, like The Cherry Orchard, Death of a Salesman, The Importance of Being Ernest, Death in the Afternoon --- and suddenly there it is around the corner or on late-night TV or, in my case, in your mailbox.

Over the years I had gotten the impression that it was a "warm" and "loving" look at a family in Chicago, a rather genial picture of black family surviving in the city, one of those feel-good plays on the order of Porgy and Bess or maybe even Our Town.

I commute three times a week, so it gave me a chance to take Lorraine Hansberry with me on the morning run. My commute time --- an hour and fifteen minutes --- worked out perfectly, so I got all of the first part on my way north; the second would be on my way home.

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"Warm?" "Loving?" Loving, perhaps, in the most brutal stripping-away sense of that word. "Warm" ... no, better, hot: burning with passion, passionate love mixed with a despondent hate. The despair/hope/anger of a people dumped on for five generations. A bitter striking out at anything that gets in the way of pent-up rage. A curdling sense of continuing injustice.

It was certainly a play of its time ... no, better, before its time. Which was maybe why the director had to work for over a year to get the funding to put it on off-Broadway.

§   §   §

If Hansberry were not so artful a dramatist, the characters presented here would have devolved into caricatures. Walter Lee, working as a chauffeur for the white folk, opening doors, closing doors, closed life ... doors closed to him because he is black. For him, hope was strangled in the crib as it twisted together with the Great American Dream, and he comes to be in a prison in his days and dreams and life; so that it finally turns wild and foolish, as all must turn wild and foolish when there is no exit.

His wife Ruth the target of his rage. His sister Beneatha --- the hope of the family --- gets some of it too. She is beginning college: all of them pray it will be her great escape. And the towering figure of Mama Lena. Who doesn't dry up. Nor let all fester nor rot nor explode. She's the survivor. And through her, all survive.

§   §   §

There is one other character, a key character often forgotten when you hear this play in the car, or perhaps see it on a television screen. The missing partner is the dismal, dark, dilapidated apartment where the four members of this family have been crammed together for god knows how long. A tiny walk-up in the Chicago ghetto where there is no privacy, no freedom, no escape.

And it is in this shabby no-exit apartment that we live out two days in the life of the Younger family. From the very first of the play we know that we'll be party to the tearing of dreams, an innocence that may well bring down all of them.

The tragedy of these people is the degrading tragedy of people who must battle each other over getting up, arguing over who uses the bathroom first, belabor each other over money, fighting over who is going to eat, and what they will eat. Thus Walter, the most trapped of them all, can say, "damn my eggs, damn all the eggs that ever was."

§   §   §

I almost didn't get to hear the second part of A Raisin in the Sun. Not because of any problem with my drive-time, no wrecks on Highway 805 to discombobble me, no break-down of the CD player, nor of the car ... or any other chance occurrence. No, I almost didn't get to hear Part Two because after the first few moments of Part One I was caught up in four characters that I figured were going to eat each other alive, frazzled by their lives and what it was to be stuck in a tinderbox with what little society had given them. I knew that the bickering that drove the first few moments had a vicious counterpoint that would explode before there was a chance to stop it.

One is artfully pulled into the characters from the first moment. Grandmother Lena has gone through this absurd punishing scenario for sixty years. Beneatha believes that she can escape 1950s discrimination with mere schooling. Walter Lee believes that with just a little cash he can get a liquor license, and he and a couple of friends will become respectable businessmen. Thrown into this cauldron is a lump of money ----$10,000 that's coming in for Grandmother (her husband their father just died). And the sweet thought of the four of them is that this $10,000 is going to buy them freedom.

The bomb is there, waiting to go off, and after I spend an hour or so wrestling with the four of them through the first act I begin think "I don't want to know what is going to happen next." I just wanted to beg off, get the hell out. So I won't tell you what happened when I bit the bullet.

But I will leave you with this scene. Walter of course goes out and loses the money. All of it. It was her money that he loses, the money that came from the death of Walter, Sr., the husband who "I seen --- him --- night after night --- come in --- and look at that rug --- and then look at me --- the red showing in his eyes ---- the veins moving in his head --- I seen him grow thin and old before he was forty --- working and working and working like somebody's old horse --- killing himself!"

Beneathea rages at her brother although it is Lena who has just lost everything. And this is what Lena says to Beneathea:

    There is always something left to love. And if you ain't learned that, you ain't learned nothing. (Looking at her) Have you cried for that boy today? I don't mean for yourself and for the family 'cause we lost the money. I mean for him: what he been through and what it done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain't through learning --- because that ain't the time at all. It's when he's at his lowest and can't believe in hisself 'cause the world done whipped him so! when you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.
--- C. A. Amantea
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