65 Years Ago, “A Raisin in the Sun” Changed American Theatre

Posted on March 26, 2024

by Eric P

Sixty-five years ago this month, Lorraine Hansberry’s pivotal play A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway, and it’s exerted a gravitational pull on American culture ever since.

In fact, its cultural conversation extends both forward in time and back – Hansberry derived the play’s title from Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem:”

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

The dreams in the play revolve in part around the new home the Younger family hopes to move to; it’s in an all-white neighborhood that isn’t particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of integrating, as we gather from inhospitable visits from the play’s only white character. The tensions in the family over money, pride, and dignity escalate to a boiling point, the characters’ frustrated ambitions in a racially discriminatory society churning through the options in Hughes’s poem as though they were the stages of grief (does the deferred dream fester? Sag? Explode? – Or all of the above?).

A play by a Black woman playwright and a Black director featuring mostly Black characters grappling in nuanced ways with what were perceived as predominantly Black concerns was not considered a sure-fire commercial slam-dunk on Broadway in 1959, even with what we retrospectively recognize as a must-see cast of heavy hitters like Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett Jr. But it was a hit, critically and otherwise, and it quickly became recognized as an iconic edifice in the American theatre. The play is routinely restaged and reinterpreted with major performers like Danny Glover, Phylicia Rashad, and Denzel Washington.

And the play has cemented its classic status by being folded into subsequent works by other writers, sometimes earnestly – as with Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park and Beneatha’s Place by Kwame Kwei-Armah – and sometimes satirically – as with “The Last Mama-On-the-Couch Play,” an irreverent sketch in George C. Wolfe’s play The Colored Museum.

It’s an enormous cultural impact for a writer who lived so briefly – Hansberry died from cancer at the age of 34, leaving behind another major play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which was recently revived on Broadway with Oscar Isaac, and a legacy of uncompromising intellectual and political activism that led to her giving advice to Robert Kennedy and being monitored by the FBI. If you’re prompting Nina Simone to write the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” you’re doing something right.

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