Contemporary productions of classic dramas often try to capture something of the essence of the original production. As a dramaturg, I want to know how audiences and critics responded to earlier productions of the plays I work on, to better inform my work and give me the ability to offer an historical perspective. So one of the first questions I asked myself in preparing for the rehearsal period was: In 1959, when A Raisin in the Sun premiered on Broadway, what were the reactions?
Clearly, the show was well received – it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and Columbia Pictures immediately requested a screenplay from her for the film version of the play, which was released just two years later.
Brooks Atkinson, then the critic for the New York Times, reported, “The play is honest. She has told the inner as well as the outer truth about a Negro family in the Southside of Chicago at the present time. Since the performance is also honest and since Sidney Poitier is a candid actor, A Raisin in the Sun has vigor as well as veracity and is likely to destroy the complacency of anyone who sees it…That is Miss Hansberry’s personal contribution to an explosive situation in which simple honesty is the most difficult thing in the world. And also the most illuminating.”
But beyond critics, what were the reactions? Years later in a theoretical journal, Douglas Turner Ward claimed “It is Walter Lee – flawed, contradictory, irascible, impulsive, furious and, most of all, desperate – who emerges as the most unique creation for his time and ours. It is his behavior throughout the play – his restless impatience, his discontent with the way things are, his acute perception of societal disparities, his fury at status inequities, his refusal to accept his ‘place’ – which gives the play prophetic significance, for these traits are not embodied in an exceptional prototype but are the properties of an average person, a typical member of the broad black majority. Most of the 1959 audience, encountering this anger within such a prevalent type, felt threatened. He made them uneasy; he raised unsettling doubts; he was difficult to identify with. Where would all this raging frustration lead? Despite his fixation with America’s pragmatism and dreams of success, he was, in his energy, an omen. That energy was soon to erupt into American reality with a vengeance.”
And what of the play’s impact on the field of theatre? Immeasurable. Woodie King, Jr., artistic director of the New Federal Theatre and a pioneering African American theatre artist, concurred. “A Raisin in the Sun opened doors within my consciousness that I never knew existed. Here is was in Detroit’s Cass Theatre, a young man who had never seen anywhere a black man express all the things I felt but never had the courage to express – and in a theatre full of black and white people, no less!…The power of the play had made us all aware of our uniqueness as Blacks and had…confirmed that our dreams were possible…The effect all this had on the current crop of black artists is tremendous…To mention all of the artists whose careers were enhanced by their encounters with Hansberry and A Raisin in the Sun would read like a Who’s Who in the black theatre.”
So clearly, a production today needs to capture that honesty, the sincere glimpse into a family struggling against the inequities of 1950’s America. It needs to make us feel uneasy, as we witness Walter Lee’s rage and its impact on his family. We need to understand the vital necessity of all that followed in the Civil Rights movement – and by extension, the struggles of any group of people to be treated humanely. And it if we succeed, we too will be inspired by the courage of the Younger family to stand up and fight.