First produced on Broadway in 1959 and recognized as a classic today, Lorraine Hansberry’s play about a black family seeking its way up the ladder of success in search of the American dream can still move audiences.
It also affects the actors playing the major roles in “A Raisin in the Sun” in the Eastern Nazarene College theater department’s production next week, said director Tara Brooke Watkins.
“About half of the theater majors are black,” Watkins said. “In the last couple of years we have been diversifying the student body. It kind of felt like let’s encourage them to do a play that tells your story.”
“A Raisin in the Sun,” a realistic portrayal of a black family living on the south side of Chicago in the ’50s, is packed with strong characters: Mama, a widow who has just received an insurance payment from the death of her husband; her son Walter and his wife, Ruth; and her daughter Beneatha. Along with Walter and Ruth’s young son, they live together in the cramped apartment where the family has always lived.
The play begins the day before the money arrives, and the atmosphere is tense with competing ambitions on how to achieve the dream of success. Mama wants to buy a house and leave a depressed neighborhood where her apartment barely gets enough sunshine to keep a single plant alive.
Walter, a chauffeur, wants the money to invest in a business, a liquor store. He sees it as the only way to get ahead in a world where there are no opportunities for black men.
“Society is not helping. So he has to do it on his own,” Watkins said.
Beneatha, a college student, has her own plans for the money. She wants to go to medical school.
Senior Athena Horton, who plays Beneatha, finds some interesting connections between her role and her own life.
“I’m a college student in the same place in life as she is,” Horton said last week. “She is the first person in her family to go to college. She is blessed to have opportunities her brother didn’t have. [My character is] wrestling with that internally; a lot is being given to me. They’re all sacrificing for me to go somewhere.”
The final major character, Ruth, has pressing issues of her own, said junior Michaelin Thomas, who plays her.
“Ruth is a real person. She embodies the housewife, the home mom. She cooks, she cleans. She gets tired,” but is satisfied with her life, Thomas said.
However, “she doesn’t understand why he [Walter] feels the need to have the American Dream,” Thomas said.
Ruth is more in tune with Mama’s desire to have a home of their own and leave their cramped quarters in a blighted neighborhood behind — especially since she is pregnant again and weighing whether to terminate the pregnancy for a child her family can’t afford to support.
Race barges bluntly into their lives after Mama puts a down payment on the house and the family receives a visitor from their new neighborhood, the only white character in the play, who wants to buy back the house from them, with interest, to keep the neighborhood all white.
This plot turn is based on playwright Hansberry’s own experience. Her family moved into a white Chicago neighborhood and suffered severe racial harassment.
Horton said the play’s white character is motivated by a “fear of the unknown” that’s still relevant to social encounters today. There was “such a huge separation” between the two communities, she said. “There’s ignorance on both sides, so they’re afraid.”
The other crisis comes when Walter (a role portrayed by Sidney Poitier in the successful 1961 film of the play) invests some of Mama’s money in his business venture, but discovers his “pals” have cheated him and the money is gone.
Watkins said her actors found rehearsing that scene emotionally devastating. “Your heart is just wrenched,” she said.
Confronting the play’s emotions is a challenge, the actors said, but a worthy one.
“I find so much joy in being able to be part of something that tells this kind of story that so many people can relate to,” Thomas said. “Being African-American and trying to make their dreams come true in a white man’s world. Some of our grandparents definitely know this kind of story.”
Beyond race, the play raises issues faced by all struggling with tight finances, high unemployment, and limited opportunities.
In a time of economic downturn, Watkins said, “I thought this is still today’s story.”