One of the central American plays of the 20th century takes its title from a poem by Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
When Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" came to Broadway in 1959, it suggested a better possibility. It was a portent of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, especially in its story, where the Younger family plans a move from Chicago's black south side to a white suburb, but also in its barrier-breaking creative team and cast.
The latter was what seemed most newsy at the time. "Raisin" was the first Broadway play by a black woman and the first with a black director, and it had a cast that was almost entirely black. There was general disbelief that a white audience would support it, but it ran for more than a year.
Still in high school, I was in that 1959 audience within two weeks of the opening. The mesmerizing talent on stage was a future acting hall of fame. There were black Broadway stars before (Ethel Waters, Paul Robeson), but look at this cast: Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Louis Gossett, Diana Sands and Lonne Elder. The little boy was Glynn Turman, and in two bit parts were Ed Hall and Douglas Turner (later Douglas Turner Ward, director and playwright). Ossie Davis later replaced Mr. Poitier in the lead.
And the director, Lloyd Richards, went on to lead the Yale School of Drama and the O'Neill Theater Center and its National Playwrights Conference and to be the nurturing director of August Wilson's first six plays on Broadway.
I still have the 1959 Playbill, with a couple of yellowing newspaper reviews clipped inside. The Time magazine critic mentions all the "Negro" firsts and praises the play for "a saving absence of racial partisanship," whatever that means. In the New Yorker, Kenneth Tynan refers to its "colored authoress" and "magnificent team of Negro actors." Both reviews are raves, and Tynan's is beautifully written.
Later, the play was adapted into a film (1961, with the Broadway cast), two TV movies (1989, with Danny Glover and Ester Rolle, and 2008, with Sean Combs and Audra McDonald) and a musical that won the 1973 Tony Award. A 2004 Broadway revival starred Mr. Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Ms. McDonald. Pittsburgh's Bill Nunn was in both the Broadway revival and the 2008 movie.
In Pittsburgh, Kuntu did it with Ms. Rolle and Mr. Turnan in 1984, there was a 1995 tour, and City Theatre staged it in 1999.
Now comes this further indication that the play is a classic: its appropriation by Bruce Norris' "Clybourne Park" at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Starting in 1959, "Clybourne" follows the one white character in "Raisin in the Sun," Karl Lindner, the representative of the suburban homeowners' association who attempts to buy the Youngers out, as he returns to the suburb to report on his negotiations. This white parallel to "Raisin in the Sun" is comic, but not entirely so.
Then in Act 2, we move to the present, where the suburb, now largely black, is gentrifying and a whole new struggle of real estate, race and class breaks out. You don't need to know "Raisin in the Sun" to enjoy "Clybourne Park," which is a fine, funny and pointed play on its own. But if you do, it adds another dimension.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.