Magazine article Black Masks

A Raisin in the Sun: Forty-Five and Counting

Magazine article Black Masks

A Raisin in the Sun: Forty-Five and Counting

Article excerpt

A Raisin in the Sun received its first Broadway revival on its forty-fifth anniversary. Similar to the 1959 production, which was the first play by an African American woman to reach Broadway, this production also broke new ground. Phylicia Rashad's portrayal of Lena Younger earned her the distinction of being the first African-American to receive the Tony Award in the leading (non-musical) actress category. Audra McDonald, as Ruth, earned her fourth Tony Award. Sanaa Lathan, a rising star like Diana Sands, was nominated for a Tony Award for her Beneatha. Just as it was for the original director Lloyd Richards, A Raisin in the Sun was the Broadway debut for director Kenny Leon. Because of, and in spite of, the controversial casting of Scan (P. Diddy) Combs as Walter Lee Younger, this revival of the play that made Lorraine Hansberry the youngest of any race to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, brought new audiences to a venue that did not usually appeal to them.

For forty-five years, A Raisin in the Sun has provided a benchmark for the progress, or lack thereof, of African-American drama and theatre. The play's form and content have been extensively analyzed; the merits and demerits of the writing and the characters have been debated. The far-reaching influence of this single dramatic work seems to compel continual debate as to its value and relevance in terms of African-American art, and African-America itself. The play has been lionized, criticized, and satirized (see "The Last Mama on the Couch Play" in George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum). But for forty-five years, this one play has probably had some kind of relationship to every theatre professional and every scholar who has any meaningful connection to African-American theatre, as well as to countless thousands of readers and audiences. The play is available in at least thirty foreign language translations. Many plays that captured the imagination in their moments have faded into the past, while A Raisin in the Sun remains very much alive. An anniversary is a good time to think about why.

Anniversaries invite retrospection, reflection, and often, speculation on the future. So it has been for A Raisin in the Sun. On the play's twentieth anniversary, the journal Freedomways published a special issue, "Lorraine Hansberry: Art of Thunder, Vision of Light" (19.4, 1979). Distinguished writers, theatre practitioners, and theorists contributed a representative cross-section of issues, ideas and appreciations. Douglas Turner Ward talked about his friendship with Hansberry and his approach to playing Walter Lee. Margaret B. Wilkerson entitled her essay, "Lorraine Hansberry: the Complete Feminist," and defended Lena Younger against the charges of stereotypical behavior so often levied against her. Adrienne Rich wondered aloud about how much tampering Hansberry's former husband, Robert Nemiroff, executor of her estate, may have done with her posthumously released work. From reading Hansberry's notes, Rich also pondered about how Hansberry's works for the theatre may have been compromised in order to get them produced. Aishah Rahman contributed a cogent essay on how she gained a new appreciation of A Raisin in the Sun after twenty years of life experience, and after profound disappointment with the unidimensional characterizations of women by the "revolutionary" playwrights of the Black Arts Movement. Rahman had been urged to view Raisin's commercial success (the fact that White people liked the play) as a sign of its unworthiness as AfricanAmerican drama. Life experience had taught her that Hansberry's characters were complex, and truthful, and that Hansberry had shown both insight and foresight toward the historical moment in which she wrote. Several writers expressed admiration for Hansberry's grasp of the sweep of history and politics, and the way she changed the meaning of the term, "universal," by showing the universality of a specifically AfricanAmerican experience. …

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