The thing about classics of any kind is that you never know what you’re going to get when you read or watch them. You can look up all the reviews you want, but until you’ve cracked open the book or movie for yourself you can’t be sure if any classic is right for you.
I have often heard people gush over Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin In The Sun and told myself there was no rush to read it on my own because I would eventually have to read it for some class. Sadly, this book never actually made it onto the required reading list for any of my classes so it was left up to me to read it at my leisure. This summer, I finally had a chance to pick the play up from my mother’s collection while I waited for my own boxes to be shipped from Pittsburgh. My ultimate reaction was that this play was nothing like I expected to be. Instead, it was infinitely better.
A Raisin In The Sun follows the Youngers, an African-American family living in South Side Chicago sometime between the end of WWII and the present. The Younger family includes Mama/Lena, a retired domestic worker;Walter/Brother, her son who has big dreams of making it; Ruth, Walter’s wife; Ruth and Walter’s son, Travis; and Beneatha, Walter’s younger sister who wants to become a doctor. As the play begins, the Youngers are all anticipating getting the insurance check that covered Walter Sr., Mama’s husband who has recently died.
For once, I can actually agree with the general consensus and say that this particular play is worthy of the title of classic. Everything in Hansberry’s play felt extremely relevant and real to me, from the characters who were trying to figure out how to spend their new found fortune to the themes that Hansberry brought up about African-American’s place in American society. Even on paper, the characters’ emotions and actions are mapped out and shown so well that watching a film or live performance for Hansberry’s work was actually unnecessary. I personally enjoyed each aspect of the play and could see how certain issues such as, the idea of the black man’s ambitions being unrecognized or the questioning of whether blacks are better off assimilating into the American culture vs. African culture are still relevant. Yet, when I watched the 1961 film adaptation, I wasn’t necessarily as impressed by it like I was with the play.
Each person in the family has big dreams of what they want to do with the money when they get it, however, Walter is the most vocal about his plans. When the check finally comes, Mama takes the money and buys a house in an all-white neighborhood with half of it and gives the rest to Walter with strict instructions to put half in the bank for Beneatha’s medical education and use the other half for whatever he sees fit. Unfortunately, Walter does the opposite and things start to unravel from there.
For starters, the movie added and deleted key scenes that were important to the overall message of the play. In one deleted scene, Beneatha cuts her permed hair off and everyone is shocked by her actions. This depiction of going natural was empowering in the play. In the film, this scene is cut so that instead of physically shedding what is implied to be her “assimilated American habits,” Beneatha just goes into a monologue about how she will not take on anymore American habits and will instead identify more with her African roots. In my opinion, this scene would have been amazing if it was acted out properly by Diana Sands who played Beneatha.
Likewise, the scene where the Youngers’ neighbor comes in to borrow cleaning products before the family moves and warns/reminds Mama that going into an all-white neighborhood to live is dangerous for the times. This particular scene while not as profound as Beneatha’s hair cutting scene would have been good to show that not only whites were weary of the trouble that could come from blacks and whites living together. Yet, directors of the film chose to show only the white viewpoint instead in the visit that Mr. Linder who acts as the “welcome committee” to the Youngers’ new neighborhood makes to the family’s South Side apartment.
Even though the film did delete these two scenes and add scenes where Walter is sitting in a bar or shown chauffeuring his white boss around, I did somewhat enjoy it because of Sidney Poitier’s acting in the role of Walter. Out of all the actors in the film, he gave the best performance to me. His emotions were raw and he embodied the idea of being a man who the world had beaten down on to a T. Seeing him play Walter alongside Ruby Dee who played the role of Ruth was interesting since these two seemed to have good on-screen chemistry. While I did enjoy Diana Sands in her role as Beneatha, I was a little annoyed with her character in general in both the play and the book. However, I did chalk this up to being just part of the acceptable emotions that Hansberry’s play was meant to draw out of me.
I would definitely recommend the play and the 1961 movie adaptation. I eventually hope to get a chance to watch the 2008 film adaptation to see how Sean “P. Diddy” Combs acted in his role as Walter. Not to mention Phylicia Rashad is one of my favorite actresses so I would love to see her in the role of Mama as well.
I gave the play 5 stars and the movie 3 stars.
(Originally posted on my Blogger on June 17, 2013.)