Monday, January 23, 2017

The Theatrical Legacy of "A Raisin in the Sun"

   Lorraine Hansberry's literary classic A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway nearly 58 years ago on March 11, 1959. Raisin was the first play written by a black woman to appear on Broadway and it paved the way for future work by black playwrights, directors and theatre artists to be seen on the Great White Way. This play garnered its name from Langston Hughes' poem Harlem and like the poem it focuses on African American life in the United States during the 1950's. Raisin specifically focuses on the Younger family living in a small two-bedroom apartment in Chicago's south side. In Raisin the primary struggle exists between the central character, Walter Lee and the rest of his family. Although they all have a similar goal of wanting a better life for themselves and their family, the means by which they believe this goal will be realized is very different. The theme of rising out of one's situation is pervasive and still a common struggle for many, but this theme is not the only reason why Hansberry's play has had such a lasting legacy.
   The impact of Hansberry's story was so powerful that two playwrights wrote plays of their own that offer more insight into the life of the Younger family following the events of A Raisin in the Sun. These plays are Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris and Beneatha's Place by Kwame Kwei-Armah.
   Clybourne Park premiered in 2010 at Playwrights Horizon in New York City and went on to win the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play. Act one of this play takes place shortly after the events in A Raisin in the Sun. It begins with Raisin's supporting character, Karl Linder pleading to his neighbor not to sell his home - the home that the Younger family intends to move into. Linder is afraid that property values will decline if a black family moves into their neighborhood. The second act is set in 2009 and Clybourne Park has become a predominantly black neighborhood facing gentrification. This act focuses on a white couple, one of which is the daughter of Karl Linder, who are attempting to buy and rebuild the home at larger scale and for a larger profit. Throughout the act they are negotiating housing regulations with a black couple, one of which is a descendant of Younger family. Conversation over housing codes soon erupts into racial issues after this 50 year struggle is revisited in Norris' modern drama.
   Kwei-Armah extends the legacy of Raisin and the conversations ignited by Clybourne Park in his play Beneatha's Place. This play premiered as part of Center Stage Theatre's 50th season in Baltimore, Maryland. Beneatha's Place was performed alongside Clybourne Park in the season to put the work in context and further the discussions raised by Clybourne Park. With the pairing of these two plays and their relations to Lorraine Hansberry's original script they've respectively been called The Raisin Cycle.
   Like Norris' play Beneatha's Place begins in 1959, but instead of being set in Chicago this play takes place in Lagos, Nigeria. Beneatha has married Joseph Asagai and they've moved to Nigeria where she plans to pursue her medical career and Asagai is serving as a leader in the fight for Nigerian independence. The second act is closer to present day, Beneatha is much older and we learn that she is the Dean of Social Sciences at California University. Her department is considering dropping African American Studies for Whiteness Studies which examines the place of White Privilege in society. Three white professors including the head of African American Studies and a black assistant professor join Beneatha in her old Nigerian home to hold this important discussion. Formalities are dropped and true feelings emerge over a heated first world discussion happening in a third world country.
   A Raisin in the Sun is considered to be one of the hallmarks of American Theatre. Its story and themes have proven to be timeless and inspirational to countless audience members over the years. With the creation of The Raisin Cycle it has allowed Hansberry's original play to be introduced to a new generation of audiences, while also bringing new conversations into community dialogue over issues that did not exist or were not as relevant during the 1950's.
   In 2017, where political leaders threaten to erect barriers to keep others and their differences out, when a movement known as 'Black Lives Matter' is no longer new, but an established force and where hate crimes targeted specifically to the black community have occurred on our very own campus, we are PROUD to be producing this play. This play and its central message are timeless and even concerning in terms of how truly relevant they still are today. Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun takes the stage Feb. 8-12, we truly hope to see you at the show.

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