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Theatre / A Raisin in the Sun

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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?

Langston Hughes, "Harlem"

A Raisin in the Sun is a play written by Lorraine Hansberry in 1959, inspired by Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. It details the life and times of the Younger family, a poor black family living in a small apartment in Chicago. Due to the passing of the elder Mr. Younger, the family is now in the position of receiving a large life-insurance check. Each of the adult members of the family has an idea as to what he or she would like to do with this money, and over the next few weeks, it's shown how each character's hopes and dreams affect the other family members.

Notable for being the first play written by a (gay) black woman, as well as the first with a black director, to be shown on Broadway. Despite Hansberry's worries, the play was a huge success, and would have probably become the author's big break had she not suffered an untimely death from cancer a few years afterwards. It has been adapted several times, most notably as a 1961 theatrical film (directed by Daniel Petrie and starring most of the original Broadway cast, including Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, and Ruby Dee), as well as Made-for-TV Movie productions in 1989 and 2008, and the 1971 musical Raisin.

See also 2011 play Clybourne Park, which is a sort of Perspective Flip and Distant Finale to this play.

Contains examples of

  • Affably Evil: While not evil, Karl Lindner clearly doesn't want for an African-American family to move into a white neighborhood, but he's unfailingly polite about it and genuinely doesn't seem to understand why the Youngers object to his views so much.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: There's not truly a big bad in the story, but Karl Lindner and Willy Harris are the main sources of conflict in the story for the family in the third act. Karl Lindner is the head of a community group in the neighborhood the family is planning to move into who has come to tell the Youngers as politely as possible that he and the other residents don't want an African American family in their all-white neighborhood and is willing to bribe them out of it. Willy Harris is the supposed best friend of Walter and Bobo, and the three of them are planning to go into the liquor store business together with the rest of the Younger family's life insurance check and Bobo's life savings. But Willy double crosses them and flees town with their money.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The money is gone and the Youngers will likely receive nothing but hostility from the residents of Clybourne Park, but Walter's confidence has been restored and the family is prepared to face whatever challenges their new life will offer them.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: The character of Mr. Johnson, at least in the original script. He doesn't show up at all in later versions of the story.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Beneatha.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Both Walter and Mama pass this after Willy Harris makes off with the money. Bobo too, as he tells Walter, "I had my life staked on this deal, too."
  • Despair Speech: Walter's chilling 'Takers and Tooken' speech when he decides to cave to the racism of Clybourne Park in exchange for money, in which he condemns the rest of the family for worrying about 'right and wrong' when ultimately it comes down to how much you can 'take'.
  • Faint in Shock: Ruth faints from stress in the first scene. Her pregnancy also contributes.
  • False Friend: Willy Harris to Walter Bobo. He tricks them both into giving him a good amount of their money so he can get a liquor store set up for the three of them to do business together, but quickly flees town with the dough.
  • Foil: Joseph Asagai and George Murchison, Beneatha and Ruth.
  • Forgiveness: In spite of Walter carelessly spending the money, Mama finds it in herself to forgive him when he beats himself up over it and urges a reluctant Beneatha to do the same.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Beneatha's nickname is Bennie.
  • The Ghost: Willy Harris. He's briefly seen in the film and TV versions.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Played straight with Ruth, who puts a down payment on an abortion when she finds out she's pregnant, but she ends up keeping the baby when the family gets a bigger house.
  • Greed: Walter's tragic flaw. Particularly when Mama gives Walter the rest of the insurance check to deposit some in the bank for Beneatha's medical school education and some to invest in his liquor store. Walter ends up giving all of the remaining money to his supposed friend Willy Harris to invest in the store, but Willy disappears with the money soon afterwards, leaving both him and Beneatha with zilch due to his selfish decision.
  • Idiot Ball: Mama giving all of the money to Walter and trusting that he would put a portion of it aside to pay for Beneatha‚Äôs tuition, rather than at least giving Beneatha her own portion for her tuition, and Walter for giving it all to Willie.
  • Important Haircut: Beneatha cuts her hair and lets it be natural when Asagai mentions that keeping it straightened is "mutilating" it.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Walter has a real nasty habit of doing this when he gets stressed. And this turns into Drowning My Sorrows when he thinks that Lena spent all the insurance money on Travis's house—so much that he blows off work to go to the bar for three days straight.
  • Inferiority Superiority Complex: A lot of Walter's actions stem from his insecurity that he is not enough of a man to take care of his wife and son. To him, the money represents an opportunity for him to finally provide for his family and prove to the world that he is a real man.
  • It's All About Me: Walter throws a huge fit at the notion that the money will be divided equally between him, his sister, and a down payment on a house for them all. He cries at his mother about how she's killed his dream, and then refuses to go to work. He then steals his sister's share of the money and gives it all to Willy to start his liquor store business.
  • Karma Houdini: Willy Harris is not revealed to have any commeuppance for stealing from Walter and Bobo.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title comes from Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem", first published in his 1951 collection Montage of a Dream Deferred.
  • Men Are Better Than Women: Lena is rather dismissive of Beneatha's ambitions to be a doctor, even though she does set a portion of the inheritance aside for her tuition, but then she gives it all to Walter to deposit it. Walter himself then takes all of the money to invest in the liquor store, clearly feeling that his aspirations are more important than Beneatha's.
  • Mood Whiplash: The Youngers are quite pleased with themselves for not stooping to taking bribe money from the racist Karl Lindner to keep out of the all-white Clybourne Park... but shortly afterwards, Bobo comes and informs Walter that Willy has fled town with all of the money they gave him to invest in the liquor store...which included the money that Walter was supposed to deposit in the bank for Beneatha's education as a doctor. The mood turns quite solemn.
  • Motif: Plants, sunlight, dreams.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Beneatha, for the most part.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Mr. Lindner plays with this. He holds no personal animosity towards the Youngers and never utters a single slur, but he goes along with the neighborhood's plan to bribe the family into keeping out because that's what's expected of him. The Youngers don't think of him any better than they would an overtly racist character.
  • Posthumous Character: Big Walter, whose death and subsequent life-insurance settlement triggers the plot.
  • Purple Prose: An odd case of a play doing this; if you read the script, you'll see that the stage directions and set descriptions are unusually detailed and precise.
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Beneatha's two love interests, George and Joseph. George is wealthy, but stuck-up and shallow, and Beneatha clearly doesn't like him very much. Joseph is from Africa, in America for college, and sincerely loves her and even proposes to take her to Africa so that they can live together.
  • Say My Name: In the movie, Walter repeatedly cries out Willy's name after learning that the latter has disappeared with the money.
  • The Unfavorite: Beneatha. It seems no matter how much Walter screws up, Lena is determined to coddle him, while Beneatha is treated with derision, despite being an intelligent and hard-working student with aspirations to be a doctor (a major accomplishment for a black woman even today, let alone back then).
    "Mama, why can't you be on my side for once?"
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Inverted. Lena wants to know that her children love her as much as she loves them.
  • Wham Line: "Mama... I never... went to the bank at all..."

Alternative Title(s): A Raisin In The Sun