By Nyambura Mutanyi
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
These lines from Langston Hughes’ poem “Dream Deferred” lend this book its title and lay the groundwork of a play that, 54 years after Hansberry had it published, still echoes true in a world that is different from the one in which she wrote it.
The play opens at the residence of the Youngers; a Black family that lives in the South side of Chicago and awaits a cheque with anticipation that would be palpable on stage. Their breadwinner having passed away, this cheque is the next step in life for a family that escaped the South; his life insurance cheque. For Mama, it is a mean replacement for the man she lived with for many years while for each of the other adults in the family, this cheque presents a chance for them to fulfil their dreams. The Youngers live in a small apartment in conditions that are appalling and it’s no wonder that they all seem to have invested so much of themselves in a piece of paper. The cheque comes to represent, on some level, the older Mr Younger embodied. A sort of sacrament for the fulfilment of his family.
Money is definitely a significant issue in this play. Making it, spending it, squandering it, anticipating it. In a time when the global economy is a shambles, it’s certainly relevant. The Youngers’ talk of money would be vulgar in the eyes of the elite but it will be very familiar to those people who sense that their life has transformed into a struggle to survive, let alone progress. The promise of money that lingers in this play is particularly poignant as it progresses. At once a tool for hope and despair, Hansberry managed to paint a picture that encapsulates all the various ways in which it comes to represent so many different things to each of the members of the household.
Race also hangs heavily on the people in the book. While we in Africa do not live in a world that discriminates against us on the basis of colour, race as Hansberry writes of it is a placeholder for all the other sources of inequality that pervade the world. Religion, wealth, political leanings-these can all be substituted with race in this play to present a highly readable and relatable play. Here we see the politics of hair that show us a world that gave rise to the Afro-it’s not hair, it’s politics-and Walter’s speeches show us what it means to be a Black man in America. This is race before the furore of the death of Trayvon Martin, race before Obama or the passing of various Civil Rights laws. This is marginalisation that is riveting for its familiarity.
Race and money coalesce to present us with a picture of what it means to strive and what breaking away does to those who manage to escape from poverty. The ‘uppity’ black man is encapsulated by George, a young man who views all things Black with disdain. He is the true embodiment of the feeling of the oppressed that might is right. Hansberry juxtaposed him beautifully against the lone African character in the play. Eager to lead his country to freedom, the hope he has contrasts sharply with the hopelessness felt by Walter, the younger Mr Younger. The Black experience is not a linear experience. In one house-for that is the only place in which this play occurs-all the various permutations of what exactly it means to be Black are queried and spoken of in the language of the man on the street and that of those we have grown to know as the Black Panthers.
Reading this play in a country like Kenya, it is particularly jarring how much Hansberry saw into the future. As Asagai, the lone African character, speaks to the Americans you can hear his lofty positions. His country may be part of the Empire but he has pride. In a searing monologue, he looks into the future and foresees the fate of Lumumba and the tragedies that were visited upon the people on the continent in the wake of independence. This issue puts hope in perspective; should it be unfettered or would limiting it be a denial of the very freedom of the people?
The women in this play present a microcosm of society. Women are treated as second class citizens in society and sustain this in their own lives. Hansberry shows that it might be true that women are their own enemies but this play also shows the sisterhood of women in a very beautiful way. Banding together to develop themselves and their own, they do it in a way that is uniquely female. Ruth Younger’s predicaments distill those of so many women and the solutions that are developed in the time of the play are a model of female strength rarely seen on stage. This doesn’t mean that men are relegated to the back burner. Rather, they are shown in all their complexity with the strength and influence of women a significant theme.
Hansberry wrote a play that celebrated feminism before it had a name. There is a direct line that links the thoughts of the three women in the Younger household. Women who are vastly different-one Southern, one a domestic worker, another young and educated-show the true nature of feminism. Set in a country that went on to treat the feminist ideal as a White ideal, it is a reminder to the world that the development of self and the liberation of the mind and body are human and to limit the experiences of any one gender is to subtract from humanity.
Set in a changing world, this play retains its freshness for that very reason. Even as things change, they truly remain the same. Ambition and aspiration are common denominators of the human experience. Written when Ghana was the only independent ex-colony in Africa, its telling of the desire for freedom rings true today in the wake of the Arab Spring and with the recent coups in some parts of Africa.
So many things about this play reverberate in a world vastly different from that in which Hansberry lived and died. Women, Black people and the residents of the African continent have made significant gains but so much is yet to be done and achieved. The soaring end of this play is hope as we have not been taught to expect. Not ‘happily ever after’ but living to die another day. At times heart-rending and entertaining, this is a classic play.
PS Phoenix Players are currently staging ‘A Raisin in the Sun’; a chance to see the play come alive.
Publisher: Vintage Books
Year published: 1994