An activist for civil rights, Lorraine Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun during the late 1950s. At the age of 29, Hansberry became the first African American female playwright to be produced on a Broadway stage. The title of the play is derived from a Langston Hughes poem, "Harlem" or "Dream Deferred."
Hansberry thought the lines were a fitting reflection of life for African Americans living in a vastly segregated United States. Fortunately, some areas of society were beginning to integrate. While attending an integrated camp in the Catskills, Hansberry befriended Philip Rose, a man who would become her strongest supporter, and who would fight to help create A Raisin in the Sun. When Rose read Hansberry's play, he immediately identified the drama's brilliance, its emotional depth, and social significance. Rose decided to produce the play, brought actor Sidney Poitier into the project, and the rest is history. A Raisin in the Sun became a critical and financial success as a Broadway play as well as a motion picture.
A Raisin in the Sun takes place during the late 1950s. Act One is set in the crowded apartment of the Younger Family, an African-American family comprised of Mama (early 60s), her son Walter (mid-30s), her daughter-in-law Ruth (early 30s), her intellectual daughter Beneatha (early 20s), and her grandson Travis (age 10 or 11).
In her stage directions, Hansberry describes the apartment furniture as tired and worn. She states that "weariness has, in fact, won this room." But there is still a great deal of pride and love in the household, perhaps symbolized by Mama's houseplant that continues to endure despite hardship.
Act One, Scene One
The play begins with the Younger family's early morning ritual, a fatigued routine of waking up and preparing for the working day. Ruth wakes up her son, Travis. Then, she wakes up her groggy husband, Walter. He is obviously not thrilled to awaken and begin another dismal day working as a chauffeur.
Tension boils between the husband and wife characters. Their fondness for each other seems to have faded during their eleven years of marriage. This is evident in the following dialogue:
WALTER: You look young this morning, baby.
RUTH: (Indifferently.) Yeah?
WALTER: Just for a second - stirring them eggs. It's gone now - just for a second it was - you looked real young again. (Then dryly.) It's gone now - you look like yourself again.
RUTH: Man, if you don't shut up and leave me alone.
They also differ in parenting techniques. Ruth spends half of the morning firmly resisting her son's pleas for money. Then, just as Travis has accepted his mother's decision, Walter defies his wife and gives the boy four quarters (fifty cents more than he asked for).
The Younger family has been waiting for an insurance check to arrive. The check promises to be ten-thousand dollars, made out to the matriarch of the family, Lena Young (usually known as "Mama"). Her husband passed away after a life of struggle and disappointment, and now the check in some ways symbolizes his last gift to his family.
Walter wants to use the money to partner with his friends and buy a liquor store. He urges Ruth to help convince Mama to invest. When Ruth is reluctant to assist him, Walter makes derogatory comments about women of color, claiming that they do not support their men.
Beneatha, Walter's younger sister, wants Mama to invest it however she chooses. Beanteah attends college and plans to become a doctor, and Walter makes it clear that he thinks her goals are impractical.
WALTER: Who the hell told you you had to be a doctor? If you so crazy 'bout messing 'round with sick people - then go be a nurse like other women - or just get married and be quiet.
After Travis and Walter have left the apartment, Mama enters. Lena Younger is soft spoken most of the time, but not afraid to raise her voice. Hopeful for her family's future, she believes in traditional Christian values. She often does not understand how Walter is so fixated on money.
Mama and Ruth have a delicate friendship based upon mutual respect. However, they sometimes differ in how Travis should be raised. Both women are hard workers who have sacrificed a great deal for their children and husbands.
Ruth suggests that Mama should use the money to travel to South America or Europe. Mama just laughs at the idea. Instead, she wants to set aside money for Beneatha's college and use the rest to put a down payment on a house. Mama has absolutely no interest in investing in her son's liquor store business. Owning a house had been a dream she and her late husband had been unable to fulfill together. It now seems fitting to use the money to complete that long held dream. Mama fondly remembers her husband, Walter Lee Sr. He had his flaws, Mama admits, but he deeply loved his children.
"In My Mother's House There Is Still God"
Beneatha re-enters the scene. Ruth and Mama chide Beneatha because she has been "flitting" from one interest to the next: guitar lesson, drama class, horse-back riding. They also poke fun at Beneatha's resistance toward a rich young man (George) whom she has been dating. Beneatha wants to focus on becoming a doctor before she even considers marriage. While expressing her opinions, Beneatha doubts the existence of God, upsetting her mother.
MAMA: It don't sound nice for a young girl to say things like that - you wasn't brought up that way. Me and your father went to trouble to get you and Brother to church every Sunday.
BENEATHA: Mama, you don't understand. It's all a matter of ideas, and God is just one idea I don't accept. It's not important. I am not going out and be immoral or commit crimes because I don't believe in God. I don't even think about it. It's just that I get tired of Him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There simply is no blasted God - there is only man and it is he who makes miracles!
(Mama absorbs this speech, studies her daughter, and rises slowly and crosses to Beneatha and slaps her powerfully across the face. After, there is only silence and the daughter drops her eyes from her mother's face, and Mama is very tall before her.)
MAMA: Now - you say after me, in my mother's house there is still God. (There is a long pause and Beneatha stares at the floor wordlessly. Mama repeats the phrase with precision and cool emotion.) In my mother's house there is still God.
BENEATHA: In my mother's house there is still God.
Upset, her mother leaves the room. Beneatha leaves for school, but not before telling Ruth that, "All the tyranny in the world will never put a God in the heavens."
Mama wonders how she has lost touch with her children. She does not understand Walter's avarice or Beneatha's ideology. Ruth tries to explain that they are simply strong-willed individuals, but then Ruth starts to feel dizzy. She faints and scene one of A Raisin in the Sun ends with Mama in distress, shouting Ruth's name.