Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Dream Deferred, But Not For Long

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
-Langton Hughes, Harlem

That’s the way the crackas crumble!
-Ruth Younger, A Raisin in the Sun

Lorrraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway on March 11, 1959. The opening marked the first time a play by a Black woman was presented on the Great White Way. It was also the first Broadway play directed by a Black man, Lloyd Richards. And it contained the line listed above: “That’s the way the crackas crumble!” Ruth Younger utters the line after the play’s sole White character is thrown out of her home by husband, Walter Lee Younger. The man, Karl Lindner, has come to dissuade the Youngers, a Black family, from moving into his neighborhood. When Lena, the family matriarch and the purchaser of the property in Lindner’s neighborhood comes home, she is told of Lindner’s visit. Lena is shocked, but she approves of her family’s decision to stand firm. Ruth’s “crumble” crack is the coda to Walter’s explanation to his mother.

When I read A Raisin in the Sun in high school, that line was one of the things that fascinated me. I wondered how it played in 1959. Clearly, it is a swipe by an oppressed people at their oppressor—one delivered as clever, politically incorrect wordplay. Since Raisin attracted Black audiences to Broadway for perhaps the first time, I thought about their response. I’m surprised Hansberry got away with it on Broadway, and even more surprised that it made it into the movie version as well. But if Eugene O’Neill could use “nigger” more times than Tarantino AND Dr. Dre in The Emperor Jones, Hansberry could use "crackas" once. Turnabout is fair play.

Years after I read the play and saw the 1961 screen adaptation by Daniel Petrie and Hansberry, I got an answer to my question on audience response. I saw the Tony-winning revival of A Raisin in The Sun. Hansberry’s dis was met with a roar of laughter by my predominantly Black audience. The entire scene is masterfully constructed, because the humorous interaction of the family’s response to what seems like the play’s big crisis gives way to its actual crisis. The funny banter between the Youngers, who laugh so they may not cry at the racist visit by Lindner, quickly morphs into the play’s most powerful dramatic sequence. My audience was stunned, and Phylicia Rashad’s performance as Lena Younger in this scene made her the first Black actress to win the Lead Actress Tony Award for a Play. I will never forget her tortured howl for strength.

A Raisin in the Sun comes by this devastating sequence honestly. Hansberry creates several memorable female characters, but she saves an extra dollop of love and compassion for her male lead, Walter Lee Younger. The character embarks on a journey through a myriad of emotions — anger, joy, regret, resentment and passion—and he is a testament to the thespian powers of the actor who originated the role both onscreen and on stage, Sidney Poitier.  In the Broadway revival I saw, Walter Lee was played by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, much to the snickering of snooty critics. While he was no Sidney, I was fine with Diddy’s performance. Walter Lee, as written, is far too strong a character to be dismantled by lesser actors than Poitier. Hansberry loaded him so that no one could bring a B-game to playing Walter Lee. Diddy brought his A-game here, even if he was outshone by Rashad.

Lena and her son are the two main characters of A Raisin in the Sun, and both represent the generation to which they were born. Like her familial role, Lena rules over the play with a watchful eye toward her charges, but Hansberry nicely balances the importance of Walter Lee and Lena with Raisin’s opening event. Lena Younger’s husband has died, and she is soon to be the recipient of a $10,000 insurance policy. The irony of benefitting from the death of a man who broke his back laboring to support his family is not lost on them nor us. When the check comes, Walter Lee holds it up with awe. “Is it the right number of zeroes?” Lena asks Walter’s little boy, Travis. He tells her it is. $10,000 is a lot of money in 1959, more money than the Younger clan has ever seen at once.

Walter Lee sees the money as a way for him to get out of his limo driving job and into a small business. Walter Lee and his street-smart pal, Willy, plan to open a liquor store on the South side of Chicago where the Youngers live. His wife, Ruth is happy with the means they get by on, but Walter views money as the only way to respect and a better life.

Lena’s Baptist roots (I’m assuming she’s Baptist) leans her strongly against alcohol, so Walter Lee’s business idea is not on her radar. Instead, Lena wants to do two things to help her family: put money aside for daughter Beneatha’s college education, and to move everyone into a nicer place of residence. Lena has chosen Karl Lindner’s neighborhood not because it’s lily-White, but because it’s not only nicer than the Black neighborhood, it’s also CHEAPER. When Walter Lee hounds his Mama for the money, he tells her “money is life.” Hansberry’s dialogue outlines that generational difference between mother and son:

Mama: Oh—So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money. I guess the world really do change . . .

Walter: No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.

Mama: No . . . something has changed. You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched . . . You ain’t satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home; that we kept you out of trouble till you was grown; that you don’t have to ride to work on the back of nobody’s streetcar—You my children—but how different we done become.

You my children, but how different we done become” is a great line with such meaning. I could hear my own mother saying it to me, and her mother to her. Both Claudia McNeil, who originated the role and plays it onscreen, and Phylicia Rashad in the revival work this dialogue to maximum effect.  Lena isn’t speaking just for Walter’s money lust, she’s also speaking for Beneatha’s rejection of the religion that sustained generations of slaves and segregated peoples, for better or worse. There’s pie in the sky when you die, and contrary to Beneatha’s claims of atheism, God DOES exist in one place in this universe. And it isn’t Heaven. Lena threatens Beneatha with incredible violence for her blasphemy, forcing her to say “in my mother’s house, there is God.”

Beneatha is another of Hansberry’s fine creations. As originated by the late, great Diana Sands onstage (and in Petrie’s film), Beneatha is young, idealistic, and influenced by two men at polar opposites. There’s George, a wealthy, assimilated man who looks down on his heritage, and Asagai, a doctor from Nigeria who is a silver-tongued purveyor of African pride. Walter Lee interacts with both of them as well, seeming in his drunkenness to be more interested in George’s ideas. Asagai provides Beneatha with the same thesis statement Lena tries to wallop Walter Lee with: Money isn’t everything.

It’s a statement the younger Youngers will learn the hard way. After seeing how much Walter Lee’s dream of his own business means to him, Lena gives him the rest of the insurance money. She has already put forth the downpayment (a smart move). Of the remaining money, she asks Walter Lee to save $3,000 for Beneatha’s education and to use the rest as he sees fit. Walter Lee disobeys his Mama, giving all the money to his partner Willy, violating the cardinal rule that you should NEVER trust a man named Willy with your money. (Ed. Note: Odie would know this. His first name is Willie, folks.) Willy runs off with the money, taking with it both Walter Lee and Beneatha’s dreams.

We find this out right after the entire “crackas crumble” sequence. It packs a punch. See for yourself.

Now penniless, Walter Lee considers a deal with the Devil. He calls Lindner to see just how much he can get to keep his cullud behind out of the area. Lindner and his neighbors can pony up an absurd amount, more than the few thousand dollars Willy has absconded with, but Walter Lee is selling his Mama’s dream up the river in favor of his own. Hansberry puts special importance on the new house, not just because home ownership is one of the cornerstones of the American dream, but also because of the real-life case her family went through in order to live in a neighborhood not unlike Karl Lindner’s. Walter Lee’s attempt at a buyout is both perfectly understandable and heartbreakingly wrong.

“You my children, but how different we done become.”

Hansberry ties all her characters to the play’s themes, but she uses Ruth Younger in one of the more controversial aspects of A Raisin in the Sun. When Ruth discovers she’s pregnant, and remembers that she and Walter Lee barely make enough to feed Travis, she disappears from the play for a moment. When she returns, she mentions something about going to see “that lady doctor downtown,” code for the ghetto version of Vera Drake. Ruth hasn’t gone through with the procedure, but she gives it serious consideration. Lena is horrified by this, as her generation and/or her religiosity wouldn’t allow her to consider this option. Again, the generational gap is revealed.

“You my children, but how different we done become.”

All versions of A Raisin in the Sun end triumphantly, with Walter Lee coming to his senses, and the family moving into their new home. Walter tells Lindner:

"[W]e have decided to move into our house because my father—my father—he earned it for us brick by brick. We don’t want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors. And that’s all we got to say about that. We don’t want your money."

I haven’t given out a homework assignment during the entire Mumf this year, so here’s one for you. Seek out the 1961 version of this film, and watch it. The entire thing’s on YouTube, so you won’t have to go far. There’s a TV version of the Diddy/Phylicia Rashad revival, as well as an earlier TV version with Danny Glover and Esther “Damn! Damn! Damn!” Rolle.  But those are only for extra credit. Petrie’s version is the closest one can get to seeing the original production, as it brings the entire cast to the screen. This is Poitier’s finest hour as an actor, and I am certain that the reason he won that Oscar for dealing with those nuns in Lilies of the Field was because Oscar knew it owed him for this.

Ruby Dee is excellent as Ruth, as is Diana Sands’ Beneatha. But Claudia McNeil matches Poitier note for note and word for word. One film critic, whom I’ll not name, made incredibly racist comments about her, even going so far as to say she was a man in drag. Don’t buy into that nonsense. McNeil’s matriarch is incredibly strong, and some of her speeches have a forceful power that found a counterpart in Rashad’s rendering. This is the strength of great writing, which is also why Hansberry’s play still endures today.

(As an aside: A Raisin in the Sun was made into a musical as well, called Raisin. While the original play received Tony nods for Best Play, McNeil, Poitier and Richards, it went home empty handed. The revival won for Best Actress and Best Featured Actress, Audra McDonald's Ruth Younger. I put the 1961 version of the film at #33 on my Top 50 Mumf Sight and Sound List.)


Unknown said...

I've seen the play a few times as well as the musical version. There is also a play about the other side of the story, "Clybourne Park."

One of the funnier and sadder experiences was sitting with my black male friend at the play and having people stare at us. I think the possibly Filipino guy was a bit insulted to see a black man with an Asian woman. Then there was that white woman giving us a good stare. We were in the front row, too. Ah, yes...that wasn't too long ago either.

The history behind the play is interesting, too. The house in question is still there in the Chicago area.

odienator said...

JanaBanana, I never made the connection that the play, Clybourne Park, was a response to A Raisin in the Sun. It won the Pulitzer and the Tony too! I guess I'll have to read it.

Your story about the stares reminds me of the time I went to the casino with my friend's wife. There was no romantic anything between us, but I got some serious stares from angry Black women. Of course, since I'm a troublemaker, I'd look back at them like "NYAAH! I got a White woman!" One particularly vocal sistah said "Hmmph!" I really wanted to make her mad, so I responded "Well, where were you when I was looking?" I thought her Weave(TM) was going to melt!

Steven Boone said...

Great piece. It also makes me wonder what would have been if Lloyd Richards had directed the '61 film, making the kind of transition from Broadway to Ho'wood that stage directors like Elia Kazan enjoyed in that era. Richards' direction of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, another house-bound black classic, knocked me out on Broadway in 1990.

Lo and behold, IMDb just told me he adapted a TV movie of The Piano Lesson in '95. And I found the whole flick online!

I'ma a watch it before submitting a reader request for a Piano Lesson piece, for next year's Mumf. It might make for a great sequel to this essay.

odienator said...

Boone, I actually started writing a piece on The Piano Lesson to run this year, but got sidetracked. I think I should finish it and run it.