Lyric Hammersmith, London
posted 14 March 2005
'What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?' Langston Hughes's poem offers food for thought in Lorraine Hansberry's play about race relations and the disillusionment of the American Dream in 1950s black America. The Young Vic have revived their 2001 production of this landmark play, which won its playwright a New York Drama Critics Circle Award at the tender age of 29. Indeed, A Raisin in the Sun's original Broadway production in 1959 was socially, politically and dramatically remarkable. The play broke ground in its representation of a working class African American family, placed at the heart of the narrative, thereby providing black actors with the rare chance to play three-dimensional characters. A Raisin in the Sun gives voice to African Americans written out of the ideological dream and marginalised by white, capitalist society. At the beginning of the Young Vic's production, the opening lines of Langston Hughes's 'A Dream Deferred' are intermittently projected onto the back wall of the family's apartment, like the opening credits of a film. Frances O'Connor's design effectively conveys the drab dinginess of this 1950s Chicago apartment, with three brick walls symbolically blocking in an impoverished but aspiring family. In the context of racially segregated America, the play looks inwards to explore the pressures upon family unity. As race relations and gender roles have evolved, so there grows an aching generational gap in the traditional black family. When mother Ruth inherits money from an insurance claim against her husband's death, she emasculates her son by usurping Walter Lee's role as head of the family. More than any other character, we perceive Walter's struggle with his social and familial role. In a rousing monologue, he vents his frustration at working as a servile chauffeur and failing to fulfil the traditional patriarchal role of family breadwinner. 'Things sure have changed', Ruth muses: for her generation, living meant freedom; in 1950s capitalist America, life is money. There is tension, too, between Ruth and her daughter. 20-year-old, educated Beneatha represents a future of freethinking and independent black American women; donning newly cropped hair and trousers, she firmly asserts, 'I am not an assimilationist'. Against a domestic backdrop of family politics, the narrative sets up the wider social struggle between assimilation and ghettoisation. Displaced patriarch Walter has enterprising plans to set up a business with the insurance money; conforming to the dominant socio-economic system will at least grant him a social identity. However, Walter's aspirations clash with Ruth's dream to buy a family house, so that, as daughter-in-law Lena exclaims, 'It will be ours'. Bonnie Greer points out that for many black people in 1950s America, 'To own your own home was to be your own master'. Yet, the all-white housing association of their future home offers the family a pay-off to sell the house and remain in a community of black residents. Towards the end of the play, the drama hinges on whether or not the family will become slaves again to a white social system, which seeks to deny black people social visibility. In the end, Hansberry envisages a mixed-race community, in which black people refuse to be ghettoised. Ruth tends to a plant pot on the window sill, the only symbol of life in the apartment. When the family finally moves house, Ruth is determined to save it, and plant it in the garden of their new house. The sunlight has not dried up their dreams, but promises to raise a blossoming garden in their own backyard. Packed with conflict and contradictory characters, the script is full of drama and dramatic potential. Hansberry shows the economic, social and familial ramifications of racially stratified 1950s America. By exclusively focusing on one black family, she conveys...