Wednesday, August 17, 2022

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (Audio production)

I am not sure whether to consider this a book, an audiobook, or a play. The original work was indeed a play, which ran on Broadway in 1959 - a first for an African-American woman. 

Lorraine Hansberry had a fascinating life, albeit far too brief - cancer took her at age 34. Her parents were the plaintiffs in one of the early civil rights cases, Hansberry v. Lee, which is worth discussing before I get to the play itself. 


In the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson, the infamous case in which the Supreme Court decided that Jim Crow segregation did not violate the 14th Amendment’s right to equal protection under the law, many states, cities, and smaller municipalities enacted racial restrictions. But not only governments did this. White developers, looking to profit from bigotry, created planned communities that had a variety of “Codes, Covenants, and Restrictions” written in. Specifically, many of these developments forbade ownership by “Negros, Jews, or Chinese.” Or some combination thereof. These soon spread across the country - I have found plenty of them in old deeds here in California, even in now-progressive cities like San Francisco. 


Hansberry’s parents purchased a house with one of these restrictions, and sued to invalidate the restriction. They won (in 1940!) on a technicality - be still my lawyer heart - but a win is a win. It was also one of civil rights lawyer Earl B. Dickerson’s reputation-making fights. Eight years later, in Shelley v. Kraemer, the court finally invalidated all racial restrictions in deeds, holding that state enforcement of such a restriction was state action and thus forbidden under the 14th Amendment. Note that this was even before Brown v. Board of Education, making this case one of the early civil rights victories. 


I mention this all because A Raisin in the Sun is partly autobiographical, and dramatizes this exact issue, although the lawsuit is omitted from the play. Hansberry also includes some of her own views on international race relations, through a character from Nigeria, who hopes to further the cause of independence in Africa. 


The title is drawn from a line in a Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem”:


What happens to a dream deferred? 

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? 

Or fester like a sore—

          And then run?

          Does it stink like rotten meat?

          Or crust and sugar over—

          like a syrupy sweet?


          Maybe it just sags

          like a heavy load.


      Or does it explode?


The play itself is about the upward mobility of the Younger family, who hope to use a life insurance payment to better themselves. Each member has a different idea as to how to use the money, which results in, shall we say, drama. Like many families past and present, the Youngers live in a multi-generational family unit, headed by Lena (aka Mama), whose husband has died and left the equivalent of about $100,000 in life insurance. 


Her son Walter wants to open a liquor store with a couple of friends/investors - his hope is to work for himself and earn more, and thus rise out of their current poverty. Oh, and he feels humiliated by his job as a chauffeur. His wife Ruth, who cleans houses for a living, is skeptical - and she does not trust his friends. (This turns out to be true after one runs off with the investment money.) She also prefers to focus on their life now, raising a child, rather than chase pipe dreams. Walter’s younger sister, Beneatha, is in college, and hoping to go to medical school. 


There are a series of arguments about the money, particularly with Walter trying to force his views on the rest of them. He is also pretty much a chauvinist pig, unfortunately, and says some pretty bad stuff to his wife, sister, and even his mother. It is easy to see, though, the origin of this. He is barely making it at a menial job, and he feels his manhood threatened at every turn. This phenomenon is apparent in many - perhaps most - impoverished communities. Culture - including misogyny - is in part driven by the need to find self-worth in degrading situations. Of course it is an unhealthy way to do it, but that doesn’t mean that poverty isn’t a significant factor. 


In the end, Lena makes up her own mind, and puts a third of the money down on a house. The other two-thirds is to be split between Walter and Beneatha - but Walter takes both shares, and promptly loses them to a crooked partner. 


Oh, and the house? Lena decided to buy one in an all-white neighborhood, because it is a lot cheaper. Everyone else has misgivings about this, which prove to be true, as the neighborhood committee soon sends a representative to attempt to buy the Youngers out of their home. Walter thinks they should take the money (it would be a significant profit) and run. But everyone else decides to rally around the idea that they never licked anyone’s boots before and shouldn’t start now. In the end, Walter finally harnesses his fragile masculinity and, well, decides to “man up” and tell the representative where he can take his racism. 


So, this recording is a full cast version. It isn’t a straight-up recording of a play, but there are sound effects like you would have in a radio play. Thus, my difficulty in classifying it. 


The acting is good, the pacing excellent, and the production overall compelling. There were a few times that I felt the voices got a bit far from the microphone, but even in the truck, we could understand the lines. 


The play raises some fascinating questions about identity and values. Walter represents essentially the worst of materialism, until he finally stands up for himself. Walter wants to be like George, one of two men courting Beneatha. George is from a wealthy black family, is educated, and represents (to Hansberry), the “fully assimilated” black person, the one who has become as “white” as possible in order to succeed. George also has the disadvantage of being dismissive of female achievement, and wants Beneatha to be just a wealthy housewife and pretty woman on his arm. 


In contrast, there is Joseph, the student from Nigeria, who educates Beneatha about her African heritage, and the independence movement he has high hopes will liberate Africa. (Sadly, while there have been some success stories, the post-colonial history of Africa has also had plenty of bloody dictatorships propped up by Western corporations eager to exploit the resources of Africa.) But Hansberry herself held Joseph’s high hopes for the future. 


Beneatha may be a stand-in for the author - the intelligent young woman eager to get an education and do good in her community. I must admit, I rooted for her the most of any of the characters. Ruth represents the domestic nurturer, who will take Lena’s place as matriarch some day. 


Each of these characters can be found within the schools of African-American thought. What is the best way for any minority group to better themselves within a hostile and unjust culture? And, for that matter, what is identity? Just as I have more in common with Americans of my own education and social class, regardless of color, than I do with the people of Germany or Sweden (where my people came from 130 or so years ago.) And so a woman like Beneatha seems to have more in common with other young students than she automatically would with someone like Joseph. Obviously, Hansberry thinks otherwise, at least to an extent, but hers is not the only opinion on the matter. I’m a white guy, and obviously lack this specific experience, but I think Hansberry did an excellent job in portraying the conflicting pulls of identity. In general, she wrote this play, not for white audiences so much as to tell her story the way she lived it. That is incredibly brave in any era - Broadway audiences still tend to be older and whiter - but particularly back in 1959. 


Related to the identity question is that of what it means to be a man. Is manhood measured by money, as Walter argues? White culture certainly thinks it is. (Particularly white Evangelical culture, I must add.) Is manhood measured by being in control? If so, then manhood is ultimately a pipe dream for all of us. For Hansberry, manhood was measured by a willingness to stand up to injustice, to refuse to have one’s dignity bought by mere money, to never be ashamed of who one is. This too is a measure of a woman, of course. Human dignity isn’t gendered. 


This version did not have a couple of scenes that were in the original, before it was cut for time reasons before the show went live. I think it would have been interesting to have them back in the play. 


In essence, these involve Mrs. Johnson, a loud and catty neighbor, who provides comic relief and wonders why the Youngers want to move to a white neighborhood anyway. Later, she opines that they will probably have their house bombed after they move. This is played for a joke, but obviously, it isn’t a joke at all. The Hansberry family was threatened by their white neighbors, and many like them were forced out by violence. 


Even now, here in Bakersfield (which has its good points, but also a hell of a lot of bigots), there are “blue line” flags flown next door to our black neighbors, and confederate battle flags are common. There is definitely a low-grade hostility in many majority-white neighborhoods toward minorities, which makes me sad. I grew up in a multi-racial neighborhood, after all, so that is normal for me. I think my kids’ generation is even more integrated, so I do have hopes for a better future. (And a commitment to, as far as I can, help make that future a reality.)


One final note on Hansberry. She was briefly married to Robert Nemiroff, a white producer and songwriter. Pretty scandalous at the time. They divorced, but remained friends until her death. He continued to work with her professionally, and supported her work. 


Hansberry, like so many of her time, married because that is what you did. In her journals, she described her romantic and sexual attraction to women, and, after her divorce, became involved with lesbian organizations and publications. After her death, Nemiroff, probably to avoid scandal, kept evidence of her sexual orientation secret, blocking access to all materials related to her lesbianism, even to scholars. It wasn’t until 2013 that these were made available. (Now, of course, right wing politicians are determined to push LGBTQ+ people firmly back in the deep recesses of the closet, which is one reason that these stories need to be told.) 


Overall, I would say that the play is a bit dark at times, has a lot of tension and family fighting, but is well worth it because of the important themes, and excellent characterization. The Utah Shakespeare Festival is planning to do this next year, and I am hoping to go. (This year, my wife’s new job meant we couldn’t make the timing work. Better luck next year…) Definitely worth seeing if you get a chance.  

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