by Lorraine Hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry knew about disappointment, false hope, and despair. For many of her African-American ancestors who had come North for a better life only to find exploitation and frustration, the dream had become a nightmare. In contemporary terms, she chronicles their nightmare in A Raisin in the Sun, an epic story of the Younger family struggling to realize the dream by escaping ghetto life. Hansberry's screenplay not only tells the story of the Youngers but reveals the plight of all who have failed dreams.
Her cosmic vision gives Raisin its power. For high school juniors who often study U.S. history concurrently with American literature, this previously unpublished version of the screenplay allows students to read an engrossing American play, while they experience a culture that either mirrors their own lives or provides a window into a world of people who are more similar to them than they are different from them.
Raisin is an excellent choice for literature, drama, history, and film classes. There is plenty of action, salty dialogue, and a cast of dynamic characters to captivate even the most "video-ed out" teenager. Rebellion against parents and frustration with a lifestyle that brings little gratification are conditions most young people endure. However, beneath the cynical veneer of the adolescent beats the heart of an idealist who wants to believe in dreams that do come true. Through Hansberry's careful craftsmanship, the universal themes of the importance of dreams and the frustration of dreams deferred, the strength of family, the importance of not selling out, the problems of conflicting expectations, the belief that love and trust will win over deceit and selfishness, and the dangers of prejudice and stereotyping are as powerful today as they were nearly four decades ago when she wrote the play. Today's students, often from fractured families, need as much exposure as possible to values taught within a traditional family unit, and Raisin delivers without preaching.
Another reason for using Raisin is its historical value. The play is a provocative reflection of racial attitudes of the 1950s and of today. Prejudice assumes many forms, and Hansberry's characters and the screenplay's visuals bring this theme to life in a way no textbook could.
This teacher's guide contains an annotated list of characters, a brief synopsis of the screenplay, and teaching suggestions to be used before, during, and after reading the play. There are activities, discussion questions, and topics for writing assignments. All suggestions are applicable for students of average academic ability. Those recommended for the advanced student are denoted with an asterisk (*).OVERVIEW
matriarch; proud; strong-willed; deeply religious; believes in the strength of family
Walter Lee Younger Jr:
ambitious; loves his family; longs to prove his manhood by owning his own business
as ambitious as her brother, with plans to be a doctor; needs to express herself, as her varying hobbies indicate; interested in her African roots
loving and faithful wife and mother; wants what's best for her family; her dream is to move into a place with more space and sunlight
his family's pride and hope for the future; typically energetic ten-year-old
fellow student; loves Beneatha; a "modern" African, committed to preserving the cultural heritage of his Nigerian people
modern African-American who believes that success lies in imitating whites; scorned by Walter Lee, who considers him a phony
Synopsis of the Screenplay
The screenplay is presented as a continuous unit of action rather than divided into dramatic acts. Punctuated only by Hansberry's clear instructions for camera shots and angles and her precise notes for the actors, it reads with the sweeping motion of a film. The camera is in many ways the film's most important voice. Through Hansberry's camera instructions, readers learn more about her characters than from their words alone.
The opening scene, Hansberry tells us, is a pan shot of Chicago's South Side during the 1950s (although it could as well be the 1990s). Exterior and interior images show that we are in a ghetto, and this is how people live here. More importantly, this is a ghetto of African-Americans who have few choices in a white society. Over the panning shots is superimposed Langston Hughes' poem "Dream Deferred," providing the inspiration for the title: "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"
The next series of shots introduces the family whose dreams provide the basis for the play. Lena Younger, the family matriarch, is expecting a $10,000 life insurance check from the estate of her late husband, Walter Lee. With it, she is planning to retire from her maid's job for a white family. Her son, Walter Lee, Junior, wants to use the money to buy a liquor store. His wife, Ruth, also a domestic in a white household, hopes to move to a larger apartment. Beneatha, Lena's daughter, dreams of going to medical school.
When the check arrives, the tensions within the family build. Walter Lee feels he is entitled to it as the rightful head of the family. Ruth and Beneatha counter that it is Lena's money, and she should decide how it is to be spent. Because Lena realizes that the family's survival depends on their escape from the apartment, she makes a down payment on a "nice house" in Clybourne Park, an all-white residential neighborhood, without consulting anyone. The family's reactions range from Walter Lee's disbelief and disappointment, to Ruth's joy.
The plans for the move exacerbate the tensions. Feeling his manhood threatened by his mother's authority, Walter escapes to bars. When he does not return home for several days, Lena finally acknowledges his desperate need and finds him in his favorite lounge. Opening her purse, she entrusts him with the rest of the money, part of which is to be used for Beneatha's tuition, the rest for his liquor store.
The residents of all-white Clybourne Park have learned of their new neighbors and send an emissary to meet with the Youngers to explain the "rules." Mr. Lindner, the representative, carefully disguises his racist attitudes beneath neutral terms ("not rich and fancy people; just hardworking, honest people who don't really have much but those little homes and a dream of the kind of community they want to raise their children in" 164). Beneatha immediately realizes he is proposing to buy them out ("Thirty pieces and not a coin less," 165). He makes the Youngers a generous offer that Walter Lee refuses. His family has a right to a new life, and they will move to Clybourne Park.
The tension reaches a climax on moving day, when Walter Lee receives the worst possible news: Lena's money never made it to the bank. He had given it to Willy Harris, a "trusted" business partner. However, Willy took the money and ran, leaving no forwarding address.
Overwhelmed, the family members react in different ways. Beneatha is furious and totally repudiates her relationship with Walter. Lena starts to unpack, saying they can no longer move. Ruth refuses to give, in believing that with hard work they can make the house payments. In a desperate act to set matters right, Walter Lee sends for Mr. Lindner, whose offer could replace the money he has given away. No one supports his decision, feeling contempt for his willingness to sell their dreams so cheaply. In the final scenes, Walter Lee has an epiphany, recognizing not only who he is, but, his place within his family and race. As he starts to tell Mr. Lindner they will accept the offer, he hears what he is about to say and, instead, refuses it. The moving men are told to continue, and the family departs for what everyone hopes will be a new and better life.
A Brief Biography of the Author
Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago on May 19, 1930, and died of cancer at the age of 34. A Raisin in the Sun, her first play, was also the first Broadway production written by an African-American woman and the first by an African-American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (1959). It was subsequently made into a film (1961), for which this screenplay was written by Hansberry but only partially used by David Susskind, the film's director and producer, a musical (1973), and a PBS television production for American Playhouse (1989). Although deeply committed to the African-American human rights struggle, Hansberry was not a militant writer. Her only other completed play is The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964). Another drama, Les Blancs (1970) was adapted after her death by her husband and Broadway producer Robert Nemiroff. He also compiled her writings in To be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words (1969), also presented as an off-Broadway drama in 1969.BEFORE READING THE PLAY
It is helpful to introduce students to a work of literature prior to reading it. This is particularly important when the work may be difficult for some students to read or may present themes or ideas that are complex and/or controversial. Although the screenplay of A Raisin in the Sun is simple in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure, many students will be unfamiliar with how to read a screenplay or even a play. Therefore, it is important to help them understand how reading a screenplay differs from reading a novel. In addition, the themes of Raisin are mature and may need some introduction, so that students can appreciate the power of Hansberry's deceptively simple work.
How to Read a Screenplay
Help students understand the differences between a play and a screenplay/film. In the screenplay, Hansberry's camera instructions are very clear. Most students will have no difficulty picking up on her cues as they read. Margaret Wilkerson's introduction (xxvix-xliv) explains them within the context of the entire screenplay. Teachers might find it helpful to read this introduction before teaching the screenplay. The teacher cannot stress enough the importance of the camera's role in this screenplay. It provides the most important voice, albeit a visual one. Hansberry's screenplay represents her belief that images, characters, and dialogue work as one entity. Her "cinematic vision" (Wilkerson, xxx) should be introduced to the students, since it is easy to get caught up in her words and lose the power of these complementary images.
As a class, go to a stage play being presented in your school, another school, college, or the community. If this is not possible, brainstorm stage plays the students have previously seen.
Either orally or in writing, have students respond to these questions: What did you like about the play? What did you dislike about the play? How was it different from watching a movie? How was it different from watching a video or television program at home?
(NOTE: If you cannot arrange to see a stage play and some or all of the students have never seen one, substitute a church pageant, rock concert, or any unfilmed event involving a stage, performers, and audience.)
Using one or two plays students have seen in common, or one they have previously read in common, review the basics of dramatic structure. Ask students to respond either in writing or in small group discussion to the following:
Either see a film or video as a class or have the students brainstorm ones they have seen. Using a film or video most of the students have seen, ask students to respond in writing or orally to the following:
To help students learn the technical terms related to a screenplay, suggest that they develop individual or small group glossaries of film terms: pan shots, tracking shots, traveling shots, full shot, two shot, close up, dissolve, P.O.V. (point of view), short, long, medium shots, high angle, and montage. Have students define each term and provide an example from films or videos they have seen of how each is used.
Group discussion: To give students a frame of reference, discuss a familiar film or video, asking the students for examples of each type of shot.
Assign two or three types of shots to several small groups. As a homework assignment, ask students to watch a video selected by their group and prepare to present examples of each type of shot to the class. They can show sections of the video to the class as they explain the camera technique employed.
In pairs, students can prepare a notebook of visuals from magazines or the students' own photography, illustrating several different types of film shots. Entries should be labeled and defined. Students should explain in writing the message the camera is attempting to convey and how this is accomplished.
Introducing the Themes
Because the themes of A Raisin in the Sun are mature and, in some communities, controversial, it may be helpful for students to be introduced to some of them prior to reading the screenplay. Students may first respond to the themes in a journal, then discuss their response in small groups prior to sharing them with the class.
Stereotyping and prejudice.
A frank exploration of cultural/racial stereotyping should "break the ice." Topics to which students are asked to respond should relate to their personal experiences and observations.
Dreams and dreams deferred.
Students can respond in writing and orally to the themes of the importance of dreams, what happens when dreams are deferred or destroyed, and the American Dream.
This topic is particularly good for individual or small group research. What is meant by the American Dream? Trace its evolution from 1600 to the present. When did the phrase come into vogue? How has its meaning changed? Does it mean the same for African-Americans as for white Americans? What must happen for the dream to come true?
Either read aloud or have a student who reads well read aloud Langston Hughes' poem "Dreams." Ask the students to respond to one or more of the following in writing or in small group discussion:
The conflict between expectations.
This theme is a part of every student's life and students can respond to it individually or in small groups.
A scene related to this theme that should capture students' interest is the confrontation between Walter Lee, Ruth, and Lena over the spending of the insurance check. Ask three students who read aloud well to present this scene (102-108) to the class. Or, present this scene from the film. Following the reading/viewing, have students respond in writing or orally to the following:
The strength of family.
Most students are a part of a family of one kind or another. This is an opportunity for them to explore their own feelings about family.
Use of Language
Lorraine Hansberry uses language to help develop her characters. As in Shakespearean drama, the language in A Raisin in the Sun reflects the social and economic status of the characters in the play. It is helpful for students to understand that the language of the characters helps viewers understand who they are.
Point out to the students some examples of how language helps us know Hansberry's characters.
RUTH: What you mean, out? He ain't hardly had a chance to be in there good yet.(9)
WALTER: Un-hunh. That's what you mad about, ain't it? The things I got to talk about with my friends just couldn't be important in you mind, could they! (11)
TRAVIS: Teacher says we got to do something 'bout teaching colored kids 'bout their history. So they set up a fund to buy special books that tell all about the things the poor Negroes did. (13-14)
LENA: Near 'bout. 'Cept - 'cept, Lord have mercy, when the war, praise God, come along a few years back. That sure changed things for a while. My husband had been a porter on the railroads all his life, and just as soon as we heard they had started taking colored in the de-fense plants and all, me and him both marched right on over and took the classes they was giving in the welding and all. (41)
ASAGAI: Because I suppose all Africans are revolutionaries today, even those who don't know that they are. It is the times. In order to survive we must be against most of what is. (50)
BENEATHA: Mama, you don't understand. It's all a matter of ideas, and God is just one idea I don't acept. It's not important. I am not going out and commit crimes or be immoral because I don't believe in God. I don't even think about it. It's just that I get so tired of Him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There simply is no God! There is only Man, and it's he who makes miracles! (76)
LENA: Now - you say after me: "In my mother's house there is still God." (Silence.) "In my mother's house there is still God." (77)
LINDNER: Well - it's what you might call a sort of welcoming committee, I guess. I mean they - we - I'm the chairman of the committee - go around and see the new people who move into the neighborhood and sort of give them the lowdown on the way we do things out in Clybourne Park....And we also have the category of what the association calls - (he looks elsewhere) - uh - special community problems.... (161)
In small groups, have the students respond to or complete the following:
It is helpful to analyze Hansberry's camera instructions closely as you read. Ask: What silent messages do they convey? The following camera shots represent highlights from the screenplay; students should be encouraged to find others:
Because this is a screenplay that is meant to be acted and seen, it is best when read orally by the students. To help them integrate the words with the images suggested by Hansberry's camera instructions, stop their reading periodically and ask:
As students become familiar with the interrelationships of camera shots, dialogue, and action, informal writing responses might be assigned.
The voice heard in A Raisin in the Sun is ironic. Students can be helped to see the irony in the screenplay by responding to it orally or in writing. Examples of irony can be suggested as they read, and they can then be encouraged to keep their own list of the play's ironies.
Getting to Know the Characters
Assign each character to partners, even if several partners have the same character. One student can chart a list of physical characteristics mentioned in the screenplay, and the other can trace the personality/character traits. Cite references from the screenplay.
At intervals during the reading, all students charting the same character should meet in a small group to discuss the character. Each group is to reach a consensus on how to present a definitive character portrait or sketch to the class. Appoint a recorder to keep notes. The following might be included in the portrait: a photograph, magazine illustration, or original art work to show the physical attributes of the character. Dramatic readings from the screenplay designed to reveal the character's personality. A video presentation of the character, incorporating some of Hansberry's character-revealing camera shots.
In writing or in small groups, trace the development/resolution of conflicts between/among the characters to be shared later with the whole class. Examine/ discuss the following:
Reenact the scenes in which dramatic tension is greatest. The teacher or a student director should position the actors and stress the most appropriate voice inflections to convey what is happening between/among them. Students can either memorize* or paraphrase their lines. Scenes that lend themselves to reenactment are the following:
As a complementary writing assignment, compare Walter Lee, Beneatha, and Lena as rebels. How are the young people really like their mother? Use citations from the screenplay.*
Write about Asagai, the "modern" black man. How are his values and those of the more traditional Lena surprisingly alike? Use citations from the screenplay.*
The minor characters can be assigned to a small group of students and treated as a unit. Ask students to analyze the function of each character in the screenplay according to the following guidelines: What does the character do to extend the plot; to explain another character; or to enhance a theme?
In an essay, discuss the different values represented by Lena, Walter, George Murchison, Beneatha, and Asagai. Why do you think these differences exist? As part of this assignment, you might want to read Spike Lee's commentary (xiv), noting the difference between "assimilationism" and "Afrocentricity" as he describes them.*
In an essay, explore the concept of black pride. Consider the definition of black pride and how different characters embody it. Opinions should be defended through research and citations from the screenplay.*
In a small group, discuss which character(s) represents Hansberry's voice. Explain your rationale.*
In an informal essay, discuss the meaning of manliness. In your opinion, what makes a "real" man? Extend your personal beliefs to the screenplay, defining Walter Lee's concept of manhood. In his eyes, what makes a "real" man? Trace the ways he changes as the film develops. To what extent do his ideas and yours coincide?
Write a portrait of Walter Lee Sr. Although he is dead, his influence permeates the entire screenplay. From Lena's comments, what were his values? (43, 70, 108, 201). Is she being fair when she compares him to her son? In what ways are father and son similar?*
Throughout the play, Hansberry uses many symbols. The play will have much more meaning if students are aware of these.
Sunlight and contrasting darkness (69, 126, 151).
George Murchison's white shoes (115-116) and Asagai's Nigerian robes (91-92; 187-188).
Make a collage that shows the symbols of your life, or write about the single symbol that best represents who you are.
Understanding the Themes
Although many of the themes were introduced prior to reading the play, during the reading it is possible to deal with them in more depth.
Each small group should select a different theme to investigate and present to the class. On chart paper, develop a flowchart highlighting examples of the theme from the beginning, middle, and end of the screenplay to present to the class. Specific citations should be highlighted. Groups might want to present these themes through dramatic interpretations of appropriate sections of the play.
Individuals, partners, or small groups might select a theme that they find particularly meaningful and explain why in one of the following ways (citations from the screenplay should be included):
Don't sell out.
Students can respond to this theme in writing, orally, or artistically.
The strength of family.
The problem of conflicting expectations.
Love and trust prevail over deceit and selfishness.
Stereotyping and prejudice.
During (or after) reading the screenplay, significant quotes that advance the themes can be used as writing or discussion prompts. A partial list of suggested lines follows. Students can find others that hold personal meaning for them.
Understanding the Difference Between a Play and a Screenplay
Turn the screenplay into a stage play. To do this, students should be in groups of three to five. Give the following instructions to each group.
Comparing the Screenplay to the Film
With a partner, pretend you are a producer and director who is auditioning actors for a new film of A Raisin in the Sun. Make a list of the characteristics you would seek in actors portraying each of the major characters. Include physical as well as personality characteristics.
Students can experiment with making their own mini-video production of a sequel to A Raisin in the Sun, featuring the same characters. For example:
Designing Units Based on A Raisin in the Sun
The film and the screenplay's introductions might form the basis for an interdisciplinary America in literature/U.S. history unit on Civil Rights and Racism. Hansberry was a keen observer of racist attitudes of both black and white Americans. Suggested activities/writing assignments might include the following:
Various Thematic Units Can Focus on A Raisin in the Sun
In a unit on Dreams Deferred, compare A Raisin in the Sun with The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams) and/or Death of A Salesman (Arthur Miller). Film versions of all three can be shown to help students fully appreciate the integration of image and the artistry of the playwright. Points covered can include film techniques, characters, conflicts, symbols, tone, and themes.*
The bibliography in this teachers' guide suggests books that can be used in other units based on themes.
Another unit could focus on the life and work of Lorraine Hansberry.*
Read Hansberry's other writings (compiled by her husband, Robert Nemiroff, in To Be Young, Gifted, and Black).
In small groups and as a class compare her various writings.
Hold a panel discussion on her contention that art is a social responsibility. How does Raisin reflect her belief that a writer must be a teacher rather than merely an entertainer?
View the videotaped version of To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (1972), which is available as part of the PBS Great Performances series. This might serve as the basis for a discussion of what constitutes "art." Does the artist have a social responsibility as a teacher? In contemporary music and films, which artists do you admire and why?BIBLIOGRAPHY
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks. New York:
Continuum Pub. Co., 1993.*
Hacker, Andrew. Two Nations: black and white, separate, hostile, unequal. New York: Scribner's, 1982.*
Lindsey, Paul and Ouida Lindsey. Breaking the Bonds of Racism. Homewood,Ill.: Q ETC Publications, 1974.*
West, Cornel. Race Matters. New York: Random House, 1994.*
Carey, Lorene. Black Ice. New York: Random House, 1991.
Hunter, Kristin. The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou. New York: Scribner's, 1968.
Sebestyn, Ouida. Words by Heart. Boston: Little Brown, 1979.
Walter, Mildred. The Girl On the Outside. New York: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard, 1982.
Wilkinson, Brenda. Luddell. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.
Not Separate, Not Equal. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.
Comer, James P. Maggie's American Dream. New York: NAL, 1989.*
Haley, Alex. Roots. Garden City: Doubleday, 1976.
Porte, Barbara A. I Only Made Up the Roses. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1987.
Taylor, Mildred. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. New York: Puffin Books, 1991.
Let the Circle Be Unbroken. New York: Dial Press, 1981.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House,
Gather Together in My Name. New York: Random House, 1974.
Hansberry, Lorraine. To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. New York: NAL: Dutton, 1970.
Lipsyte, Robert. The Contender. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.*
Branch, William B., editor. Black Thunder: An Anthology of Contemporary
African-American Drama. New York: NAL, 1992.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Random House, 1959.
To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (video). PBS Great Performances, 1972.
Miller, Arthur. The Death of A Salesman. New York: Viking, 1949.
Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: NAL, 1990.
Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. New York: NAL, 1990.*
Adoff, Arnold. I Am the Darker Brother. New York: Macmillan, 1968.ABOUT THE GUIDE AUTHOR
Wendy H. Bell attended Sarah Lawrence College, received a B.A. in English from the University of Louisville, and did graduate work at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor). Currently an English teacher at Enka High School in Enka, N.C., Ms. Bell has been employed as an English teacher by the Buncombe County, NC schools since 1980. She currently teaches freshman honors classes and American literature.
Ms. Bell is a member of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the North Carolina English Teachers Association, the North Carolina Association of Educators, and Delta Kappa Gamma. She has been published in The ALAN Review, the English Journal, the North Carolina English Teacher, and the Arizona English Bulletin.ABOUT THE GUIDE EDITORS
W. Geiger (Guy) Ellis, Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia, Department of Language Education, received his A.B. and M.Ed. degrees from the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) and his Ed.D. from the University of Virginia. For over 15 years, Guy has been active in teaching adolescent literature in the classroom and in training future teachers in its use, lecturing and writing extensively on the subject. He developed and edited The ALAN Review from 1978 to 1984, changing its focus from a newsletter to a fully referred journal with an emphasis on articles with research and instructional significance. His research has had heavy emphasis on the content of literature instruction.
Currently Professor and Chairperson of Education at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Arthea (Charlie) J. S. Reed has taught for 20 years on both the high school and college level. She received her AB (Bethany College) and her M.S. (Southern Connecticut State University) in English and her Ph.D. (Florida State University) in Teacher Education. In addition to teaching, Charlie was The ALAN Review (NCTE) editor from 1984 to 1990 and served as Co-Director of the Mountain Area Writing Project (a part of the National Writing Project) from 1982 to 1988. She is also the author of Reaching Adolescents: Young Adult Books and the Schools (Holt, 1985), Comics to Classics: A Guide to Books for Teens and Preteens (Penguin, 1994), and Point-Counterpoint: An Introduction to Education (Dushkin, 1991).
Page numbers reference Penguin Putnam books.
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