Watching A Raisin in the Sun and Seeing Red


More than fifty years after its premiere, it has become commonplace to consider the play a classic of the USAmerican theatre as well as a play that is fundamentally important as a watershed event in Black theatre. But perhaps more significant than the accolades Raisin has received is its very popularity, its overwhelming presence in USAmerican culture. Frequent revivals and restagings mean that Hansberry’s play is continually performed and reperformed in the United States and is, therefore, constantly reinterpreted by new audiences. A Raisin in the Sun reverberates: it is widely anthologized and frequently discussed. The play’s audiences today – just as they did in its contemporary moment – continue to ask A Raisin in the Sun to speak for its historical moment as the singular and ideal representation of the struggles of black Americans in the late 1950s. This position as the sole piece of USAmerican drama exemplifying black American life in the 1950s has been recently assailed by August Wilson’s Fences – Wilson’s play, too, is widely anthologized and was revived on Broadway in 2010 – but continued interest in productions of A Raisin in the Sun and the play’s three film productions clearly testify to its continuing impact and popularity; there is, as yet, no film version of Fences. A Raisin in the Sun’s status as the play that represents black Americans in the 1950s means that its interpretation is crucial. As teachers of literature and editors of anthologies widely accept this play as representative of 1950s black American history, critical assessments of the play’s characters, points of view, and messages begin to speak for and even to efface the actual lived existence of black Americans. In short, the stakes for reading A Raisin in the Sun are extremely high, as readings of the play so frequently stand in for 1950s African-American history itself.

And what might it mean to read the play wrong?