Today in Literary History – March 11, 1959 – the groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway 60 years ago today

Sixty years ago today, on March 11, 1959, “A Raisin in the Sun,” the play by Lorraine Hansberry, debuted on Broadway at The Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

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The play centres around a black family, the Youngers, and is set in their cramped Chicago apartment. The family’s father has recently died and left them with a $10,000 life insurance payout.

The matriarch of the family, called Mama, intends to use some of the money to buy a house in order to give the family a better life and some to pay for her daughter’s medical school education. Her bitter and unsuccessful adult son Walter wants to use the money to open a liquor store along with some of his cronies.

Mama eventually works out a compromise and the play explores personal themes of male privilege and female identity. It’s major plot is highly political in that the house Mama chooses is in an all white section of Chicago’s South Side.

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The play is partly based on Hansberry’s own experience with her father’s traumatic attempts to defy segregation in her childhood. Its title comes from a poem by Langston Hughes:

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?”

The play took two years to finance because its themes were considered to be unappealing to predominantly white Broadway audiences.

When it finally debuted it broke many barriers. At the age of 28 Hansberry became the first black female playwright to have a play produced on Broadway. Lloyd Richards was chosen to direct, making him the first black person to direct a Broadway play.

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The cast of the play were all black performers, with the exception of John Fiedler, who played the representative from the white neighbours who tries to bribe the Younger family out of moving into their new house, a deal that Walter is keen to accept.

Sidney Poitier played Walter, for which he was nominated for a Tony award, as was Claudia McNeil as Mama. Lloyd Richards was nominated as best director and the play was nominated as best play. It won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award as best play of 1959.

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The play drew appreciative white theatregoers but also a large black audience on Broadway and around the U.S. in the touring company.

Most of the original cast reprised their roles for a film version in 1961 for which Poitier and McNeil were nominated for Golden Globe awards.

Hansberry died in 1965 of pancreatic cancer at 34.

There have been three Broadway revivals since 1959, once as a musical, the other two starring Sean Combs in 2004 and Denzel Washington in 2014.

In 1967 James Baldwin, a friend of Hansberry, wrote “in order for a person to bear his life, he needs a valid re-creation of that life… This is why ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ meant so much to black people… a current flowed back and forth between the audience and the actors, flesh and blood corroborating flesh and blood — as we say, testifying.”

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