Twenty-seven years ago when A Raisin in the Sun was written, there was no National Endowment that gave grants to writers; there was no developmental theatre, supported by grants, that made it possible for work to be looked at and worked on and repeated; there was no chain of regional theatres to possibly bring this work to the public; there was no Theatre Development Fund, providing a subsidy for production or for half-price tickets. When I consider how close that play came to not being produced, I am stunned.
I was an unknown director. I had acted with Sidney Poitier and had taught him in a class. He was a black featured player in films at that time, whose name on a marquee meant nothing at the box office. Then there was Lorraine Hansberry, an unknown, a black, a woman playwright. And Phill Rose, who had produced some records, but never a play. What chance did this group of unknowns, upstarts, have of getting a play about the life of a black family onto Broadway? Who would fund such an uncommercial project? Who would come to see it?
It took more than a year to raise the money. There were more investors in A Raisin in the Sun than in any production that had ever appeared on Broadway. The biggest investment was $750; the average was $250—little people who believed in an idea, the naïve first-time investor who had not yet been educated to understand what was impossible. Several times the project was almost jettisoned. We approached the rehearsal date in September without capitalization. Unfortunately, but luckily for us, the set of the movie that Sidney was working on burned down, so we were able to postpone rehearsals until December while they built a new set and finished the movie. We finally went into rehearsal in New York, after which we had scheduled four days of playing in New Haven, one week in Philadelphia with a total advance sale of $600, and no New York theatre to open in. It could all have ended in Philadelphia. Any knowledgeable person would have known you couldn’t have done it. We didn’t know any better. We had no choice.
The rest is history. We relished the triumph and the Cinderella aspect of that production. However, it is important that we remember how close it came to not happening at all, a mere 25 years ago.
Lloyd Richards, who directed the original production of A Raisin in the Sun, is artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference.
From ‘Raisin’ to the Present
A half-dozen 25th anniversary productions of A Raisin in the Sun at theatres across America have introduced Lorraine Hansberry’s ground-breaking play to a new generation of audiences. Here a selection of theatre artists and writers who have been touched by Hansberry’s work talk about the play’s powerful impact, and about the directions black theatre and culture have taken in the quarter-century since it appeared.
Woodie King, Jr.
What exactly do the following artists have in common: Lonnie Elder, Lloyd Richards, Douglas Turner Ward, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Robert Hooks, Rosalind Cash, Ernestine McClenden, Ivan Dixon, Diana Sands, Shauneille Perry, Ron Milner, and most of the young black writers and performers currently working in American theatre? The answer, without question, is Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.
How can I make you understand the effect it had on most of us when it opened in 1959? From my standpoint as a resident of Detroit who had only recently become interested in theatre and had no guide whatsoever, A Raisin in the Sun opened doors within my consciousness that I never knew existed. There I was in Detroit’s Cass Theatre, a young man who had never seen anywhere a black man (Walter Lee) expressing all the things I felt but never had the courage to express—and in a theatre full of black and white people, no less! I remember being introduced by someone to Ron Milner in the lobby. We both uttered something like, “This is it, man.” And I remember waiting at the stage door, where I finally cornered Robert Hooks (then known as Bobby Dean Hooks). As we walked the 10 or 12 blocks to his hotel, he listened patiently to my outpourings, my confession of how desperately I wanted to work in the professional theatre. My deep feelings came from the effect the play had had on me. Hooks laughed and said my feelings were not unique. When he had seen the play in Philadelphia, it had made him pack his bags and head for New York. Furthermore, in all of the cities the play had toured, young actors and actresses had been moved. The power of the play had made us all aware of our uniqueness as blacks and had encouraged us to pursue our dreams. Indeed, the play had confirmed that our dreams were possible.
Sixteen years later, I interviewed over 60 people while filming my documentary “The Black Theatre Movement: A Raisin in the Sun to the Present.” Most of those people said that, at one time or another, they had been influenced or aided, or both, by Lorraine Hansberry and her work. A Raisin in the Sun also made it possible for its author to speak out and be heard on issues of race where no other black woman had been so treated (witness her famous meeting with Robert Kennedy, her articles and essays on black aspirations, etc.). The effect all this had on the current crop of black artists is tremendous, as evidenced in part by the female playwrights who have succeeded Hansberry—Adrienne Kennedy, J.E. Franklin, Aishah Rahman, Martie Evans-Charles, Elaine Jackson, Ntozake Shange and many others.
Woodie King, Jr. has performed in and directed A Raisin in the Sun, and produced the play in 1979 at New Federal Theatre in New York City.
Lorraine and I met in Philadelphia, in 1959, when A Raisin in the Sun was at the beginning of its amazing career. Much has been written about this play: I personally feel that it will demand a far less guilty and constricted people than the present-day Americans to be able to assess it at all; as an historical achievement, anyway, no one can gainsay its importance. What is relevant here is that I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theatre. And the reason was that never before, in the entire history of the American theatre, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage. Black people ignored the theatre because the theatre had always ignored them.
But, in Raisin, black people recognized that house and all the people in it—the mother, the son, the daughter and the daughter-in-law, and supplied
the play with an interpretative element which could not be present in the minds of white people: a kind of claustrophobic terror, created not only by their knowledge of the house but by their knowledge of the streets. (1969)
James Baldwin is the author of Go Tell It on the Mountain, Another Country and other works. The above is excerpted from his essay “Sweet Lorraine,” an introduction to the book To Be Young, Gifted and Black (New American Library).
Literature and drama by Afro-Americans are only acceptable to the middlepersons—readers, producers and reviewers—when they reflect the prevailing political, cultural and aesthetic trends.
When integration was the thing in the ’50s, plays such as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun were pushed; but later, in the ’60s, when Walter and Beneatha’s generations became competitive with those who had formerly backed integration, the liberals became neo-conservatives and a theatre was pushed that backed the old Klan program of economic, cultural, and political exclusion of Afro-Americans from American society. This kind of theatre, supported by foundations and patrons, baited Jews, homosexuals, “white” women and integrationist Afro-American celebrities. It was called “black nafionalist” theatre.
In the middle ’70s, when the feminist wing of the neo-conservative movement became prominent, a theatre which presented the Afro-American male as villain became popular. The Afro-American male assumes a role similar to that of the Jewish male in Medieval Christian theatre. Now that Ronald Reagan and his Bel Air society friends have restored the Gilded Age, “the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer,” images of Afro-Americans which recall the 1880s are once again popular: the Brute (Mr. T) and the Pick (Gary Coleman, Emmanuel Lewis and Dannie Daniels); in order to receive commercial backing, dramas by Afro-Americans must deal exclusively with Afro-Americans singing and dancing their heads off, or must argue that Afro-Americans, themselves, are responsible for their exclusion from American society, the line that’s always been used to justify the existence of a caste system.
Ishmael Reed is a novelist, poet and publisher.
I read A Raisin in the Sun during Harold Washington’s Chicago mayoral campaign. It dawned on me that nothing had changed—everything has changed, but nothing has “What happens to a dream deferred” is not just a white concern or a black concern. The whole question of American dreams is in that play.
There never had been a successful black, straight play on Broadway until Lorraine Hansberry’s. The play helped create the civil rights movement of the ’60s. It opened up the world of black theatre.
Gregory Mosher is artistic director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where A Raisin in the Sun opened this season under the direction of Tom Bullard.
Margaret B. Wilkerson
Lorraine Hansberry knew that one of the great tragedies of the American theatre (then and now) is that audiences are not exposed to enough plays by blacks and other people of color. This cultural parochialism retards the intellectual and artistic growth of our audiences, and prevents them from comprehending fully the world in which they live. Perhaps that is why Hansberry spoke about the need for a national theatre—one that
would be national in perspective as well as in scope, that would nurture, as she once said, “all artists of grand imaginations and skills.” Until that happens, black artists will continue to define, recreate and comment on their world. Current works reveal a diversity of experience as writers delve into history for compelling themes which find their corollaries in the present, draw from a new and more sophisticated awareness of African and Caribbean cultures, and utilize more fully the theatrical medium. However, many are hampered by the lack of opportunity to shape and refine their works through the rigors and disciplines of professional productions.
For whom will their works be performed? Will the Broadway and regional theatres open up to these new possibilities or will the economic liabilities of professional theatre continue to inhibit the risk-taking necessary to cultivate new works? Will these writers continue to struggle, for the most part, with little money and few theatres to support their work? Hansberry’s play allowed us to glimpse the brilliant theatrical possibilities of a truly national theatre able to celebrate the many human voices of our culture. I hope that in the 1980s we will become mature enough as a people to live up to the promise symbolized by her brilliant play.
Margaret B. Wilkerson is president of the American Theatre Association and a lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley.
A Raisin in the Sun was an important benchmark event. At a time when most commercial vehicles were racing to see who could get the farthest away from the issues of current concern (in the wake of McCarthy’s madness), Hansberry had the courage to face an important issue and dared to presume that there were others who shared her concern for fair housing practices.
At the same time, it must be reckoned that the Broadway theatre has been and continues to be overwhelmingly dominated by economic rather than political or aesthetic considerations. Raisin is most significant because of its economic (rather than political or aesthetic) impact—it established that there is a viable portion of the theatre-going public (mainly white middle- and upper income urbanites, with a small percentage of blacks and others with comparable means) who will support serious plays about black life that represent legitimate black perspectives.
Today, years later, why does there appear to be less “overtly political” black art? Art reflects and gives expression to the historical period of which it is a part. Ten to twenty years ago there was a viable and aggressive political movement among the masses of black people. That movement ran past the point where its leaders were capable of providing effective leadership. We knew what we wanted to be free from, but we could not say what we wanted to be free to do. The historical pendulum continues to swing, however; and on each swing we move closer to the point that will permit us to solve the problems that history has presented us.
John O’Neal is the founder and artistic director of the Free Southern Theatre.
There are no cobwebs in A Raisin in the Sun. The cry it makes for dignity, love, patience and equality is central to many plays, but Hansberry set the story in a black family matrix and then quietly let the explosion take place.
Listen to Walter’s dream, and think about what happened in the next decade after Raisin, between 1959 and 1969. The Freedom Riders went South to register blacks to vote. Registration happened, but so did injuries and deaths. In 1963, John Kennedy was assassinated. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed. In 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, as was Robert Kennedy. In 1969, man walked on the moon. In those years that Walter dreams of, the whole world changed. Racism, bigotry and hatred certainly did not disappear, but protection and awareness were now operative. The dream of equal opportunity was not a distant, out-of-focus thought, but was becoming the law of the land and beginning to exist in people’s hearts. And 25 years after Walter had his dream, Jesse Jackson made a run for the presidential nomination—not as a spoiler, but as a legitimate candidate—both for his ideas and because he represented a constituency who would be heard.
This play was there at the beginning. If you had seen it 25 ears ago, you could have caught the first breeze of a movement that became a hurricane.
Steven Woolf is acting artistic director/managing director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, where A Raisin in the Sun ran through Oct. 5.
The play is about money, dreams and principles. No doubt some devout dramaturg will someday count the number of times the word “money” appears in A Raisin in the Sun and stun us into silence with the statistic. Virtually the first words that Walter Lee speaks are “Check comin’ today?”, and his final words to Lindner—the tempter who comes to offer a check in lieu of dreams—are “We don’t want your money.”
In 1984—just 15 years after the agony of the black revolution of the ’60s which the play foreshadowed—it is impossible to see the dreams without seeing the money necessary to purchase those dreams, and to reckon with what it has all cost, financially and spiritually. It is a tribute to Miss Hansberry’s brilliance as a writer that the principles she espouses transcend the money and the dreams, both of which have changed drastically in their specific values.
Hal Scott, director of the recent production of A Raisin in the Sun at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, teaches at Rutgers University.
When asked to comment on his work, the visual artist Romare Bearden replied, “I am trying to explore, in terms of the particulars of the life I know best, those things common to all cultures.” The same can be said of Lorraine Hansberry and her play A Raisin in the Sun, which I suspect accounts for its success and impact on American and black theatre artists. Miss Hansberry’s accomplishment opened up for a whole generation of blacks the possibility of theatre as a viable and legitimate artistic expression.
The future of black theatre lies for me in the examination and exploration of the problem set forth in Bearden’s comment: The task for the black dramatist is to concretize the black cultural response to the world, to place that response in loud action, so as to create a dramatic literature as powerful and sustaining as black American music.
August Wilson is the author of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which premiered last season at the Yale Repertory Theatre and reopens this month in New York.
A good writer takes the Mask of Blackness or the Mask of Color and uses it as a prism through which (as Lorraine Hansberry says) the specifics of that experience, that point of view, reveal a place in all of us that is the same. When the writer touches this “common ground,” the work becomes elevated to the universal, and differences disappear. For me, the greatest contribution that black (and other minority) writers are making to drama today is their growing ability to dissolve the resistance to finding the common ground.
Our writers are pursuing the basic investigation into the black experience in a kaleidoscope of disguises. But whatever the disguise, I think the work will continue to be about the struggle for self-esteem, survival and for space (physical or psychological) in which to exist. These things seem to come with the territory, and handling them demands the greatest creativity.
Michele Shay is an actress currently appearing in Donald McIntyre’s Split Second in New York.
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