raisin.jpgThere’s a lot of talk about dreams on TV these days. Turn on the Disney Channel at any time of day, and you’ll see a fresh, young face telling you to “believe in yourself,” “follow your dreams,” and “reach for the stars.” However, those who don’t have the money to pay for the Disney Channel could probably tell you that poverty and economic hardship are not circumstances that can be imagined away, nor are they due to some lack of self-confidence. That’s one reason I found the recent televised production of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun (shown, incidentally, on Disney-owned ABC) so refreshing. Dreams aren’t always fulfilled, at least not in the way we had hoped; a truer test of a person’s sense of self-worth is whether it is grounded in something other than “success.”

The play centers on the trials of the Youngers, a three-generation African American family living in a small apartment in 1950s south-side Chicago. Lena Younger, the grandmother, tries to hold the family together as they find that their dreams conflict with other family members’ dreams (the arrival of a $10,000 life insurance check after Lena’s husband’s death is what sets things in motion). Walter Lee Younger, her son, suffers daily indignities as a chauffeur for a rich white family and dreams of starting his own business. His wife Ruth tries to make ends meet by taking in laundry and, at the beginning of the play, is dismayed to find herself pregnant, facing the prospect of another mouth to feed (Ruth and Walter Lee already have one son, Travis). Beneatha, Lena’s college-age daughter, dreams of going to med school and becoming a doctor, but she also feels contempt for her extended family.

Lena is the backbone of the family, but the play really centers on Walter Lee’s growth, though he is arguably the least likable character. Beaten down by racism, poverty, and injustice, he takes out his anger against his family, resenting their lack of support for his business plans. Lena especially has trouble understanding why his dreams center around money. “Once upon a time freedom used to be life—” she says, “now it’s money. I guess the world really do change . . . ” Walter contradicts her, “No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.”

Lena comes to understand that, for Walter Lee, money is the tangible sign that speaks louder than words. She wants him to step up and take responsibility, but she knows that, with the world constantly telling him that as a black man he is worthless, he needs something to convince him otherwise. No empty “I believe in you” platitudes will do. Lena eventually hands over a large portion of her insurance check to Walter Lee, even though she disapproves of his plan to start a liquor store, telling him that he can choose what to do with it. She even gives him the money set aside for Beneatha’s medical school expenses, telling him to put it in a savings account for her. She could have put it in the savings account herself, but, by trusting him, she gives him the opportunity to earn trust.

He fails. He invests not only his portion of the money but also the money for Beneatha in the liquor store scheme, which turns out to be a scam dreamed up by a con man who runs away with the money. The whole family is devastated by the loss, but even more devastated when Walter Lee decides to earn the money back by taking a bribe from the chairman of the all-white neighborhood where Lena has bought a house. The chairman will buy the house back from them if the Youngers agree not to move in. Disgusted with her brother’s willingness to debase himself, Beneatha cries out, “There is nothing left [of him] to love.” Lena replies, “There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing. Have you cried for that boy today? I don’t mean for yourself and for your family ’cause we lost the money. I mean for him: what he been through and what it done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done take into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”

Inspiring words, true, but what makes them mean so much is that they’re not just words. Lena has showed her faith in Walter Lee in tangible ways, at great cost to herself; when he fails to come through, she forgives him and continues to love and believe in him. Talk about forgiving someone seventy-times-seven! But the most significant thing is that she shows her faith in him by continuing to hold high standards for him.

Of course, being who I am, I see theological parallels here. In my crankier moments, I’ve sometimes asked God why he put the tree in the Garden of Eden if he knew Adam and Eve were going to eat from it. I can intellectually agree that it was necessary to give us free will and grow us into people fully formed in his image. But, I have to say, a theological belief like that really comes alive for me when I see it embodied in characters in a story. Lena Younger isn’t naïve; she knows Walter Lee’s nature, and she knows he will probably mess up. She longs for him to live up to her expectations. Like God, she does not lower her expectations; rather, she has a seemingly endless capacity to forgive and to give Walter chances to grow into the man he was born to be.

So far I’ve been talking about the play itself and not this particular TV production, which stars the same cast as the acclaimed 2004 Broadway revival. Phylicia Rashad is stunning as Lena, though there were a couple of moments when I was distracted as she did that slow-head-turn with one eyebrow raised that, from my childhood, I associate with “Uh oh! One of the Huxtable children (or Cliff himself) is in trouble!” Audra McDonald and Sanaa Lathan complete the strong triumvirate of women, and Sean Combs (a.k.a. P. Diddy) strikes the right balance between displaying Walter Lee’s unlovable qualities and showing his true potential. Unfortunately, someone decided to add a heavy, melodramatic score to the production, apparently not trusting the power of Hansberry’s words and the actors’ skill to communicate emotion. It made me wish even more that I had seen the production when it was on Broadway, where no score would intrude.


  1. Carissa, welcome to the group! Good review, it makes me (sorta) wish I had cable so I could have seen it. But I’m not sure I could have gotten passed the P. Diddy bits, no matter how well he acted.

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