Does It Dry Up?

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Review of 'A Raisin in the Sun' by Lorraine Hansberry

In the programme of this wonderfully vivacious production Bonnie Greer writes that 'Lorraine Hansberry was a middle class girl who understood the hopes and dreams of the black working class, because, in the end, she understood that we are one people.' What rubbish! This play jumps with the angry politics of class as well as race. Hansberry also wrote her characters with such confidence that the audience rolls between the comedy and impending disaster. We really do care how this is going to turn out.

The play opens in Southside Chicago 1959 in a small slummy apartment where three generations of a working class black family crowd together. Walter Lee works long dreary hours as a chauffeur and wants to open a liquor store. His wife Ruth is worn out cleaning other people's houses and wants her marriage to be as happy as it once was. Their son Travis is trapped between their anxieties and love, their not wanting him under their feet and not wanting him out on the street. Beneatha, Walter's sister, is heading for medical school and is so young and self-assured that anything may be possible for her. She dreams of Africa, knows its colonial history and rejects all that 'assimilationist' music, jazz and do-wop that the radio plays. She laughs at her mother's idiosyncrasies and her religion and finds her brother's restlessness faintly ridiculous. Their mother, Lena, can see that Walter Lee is getting desperate and believes that she can save her family by buying a house. She also knows that the only one they can afford is in a white neighbourhood. The whole family waits for the insurance cheque that's on its way.

Raisin in the Sun was a huge success outside New York and was the first play by a black woman to reach Broadway in 1959. In fact Hansberry was the person for whom the expression young, gifted and black was coined. The play was criticised for being artistically conservative - Hansberry was selling out by being on Broadway at all and it was said to be assimilationist. But as a student Hansberry had said, 'We want to see film about people who live and work like everybody else but who currently must battle fierce oppression to do so.'

Her own well-off family had moved into a white neighbourhood, forcing and winning an anti-segregation case, so a successful black middle class has claimed Hansberry ever since. But the writer - who worked on Paul Robeson's newspaper Freedom and met her white Jewish activist husband on a picket line - made her heroes working class because she wanted social justice, not because she believed they could pull themselves up by their boot straps.

The title comes from Langston Hughes's poem that asks, 'What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore and then run?' We get some answers here and a wonderful night out.

Touring to Salford, Coventry, Plymouth, Liverpool and Hackney