Walter and Ruth Younger, their son Travis, along with Walter's mother Lena (Mama) and Walter's sister Beneatha, live in poverty in a dilapidated two-bedroom apartment on Chicago's south side. Walter is barely making a living as a limousine driver. Though Ruth is content with their lot, Walter is not and desperately wishes to become wealthy. His plan is to invest in a liquor store in partnership with Willy and Bobo, street-smart acquaintances of Walter's.
At the beginning of the play, Walter and Beneatha's father has recently died, and Mama is waiting for a life insurance check for $10,000. Walter has a sense of entitlement to the money, but Mama has religious objections to alcohol and Beneatha has to remind him it is Mama's call how to spend it. Eventually Mama puts some of the money down on a new house, choosing an all-white neighborhood over a black one for the practical reason that it happens to be much cheaper. Later she relents and gives the rest of the money to Walter to invest with the provision that he reserve $3,000 for Beneatha's education. Walter passes the money on to Willy's naive sidekick Bobo, who gives it to Willy, who absconds with it, depriving Walter and Beneatha of their dreams, though not the Youngers of their new home. Meanwhile, Karl Lindner, a white representative of the neighborhood they plan to move to, makes a generous offer to buy them out. He wishes to avoid neighborhood tensions over interracial population, which to the three women's horror Walter prepares to accept as a solution to their financial setback. Lena says that while money was something they try to work for, they should never take it if it was a person's way of telling them they weren't fit to walk the same earth as them.
While all this is going on, Beneatha's character and direction in life are being defined for us by two different men: Beneatha's wealthy and educated boyfriend George Murchison, and Joseph Asagai. Neither man is actively involved in the Youngers' financial ups and downs. George represents the "fully assimilated black man" who denies his African heritage with a "smarter than thou" attitude, which Beneatha finds disgusting, while dismissively mocking Walter's lack of money and education. Asagai patiently teaches Beneatha about her African heritage; he gives her thoughtfully useful gifts from Africa, while pointing out she is unwittingly assimilating herself into white ways. She straightens her hair, for example, which he characterizes as "mutilation."
When Beneatha becomes distraught at the loss of the money, she is upbraided by Joseph for her materialism. She eventually accepts his point of view that things will get better with a lot of effort, along with his proposal of marriage and his invitation to move with him to Nigeria to practice medicine.
Walter is oblivious to the stark contrast between George and Joseph: his pursuit of wealth can only be attained by liberating himself from Joseph's culture, to which he attributes his poverty, and rising to George's level, wherein he sees his salvation. Walter redeems himself and black pride at the end by changing his mind and not accepting the buyout offer, stating that the family is proud of who they are and will try to be good neighbors. The play closes with the family leaving for their new home but uncertain future.
The character Mrs. Johnson and a few scenes are often cut in reproductions. Mrs. Johnson is the Younger family's neighbor. She is nosy and loud, and cannot understand how the family can consider moving to a white neighborhood. Her lines are employed as comic relief, but Hansberry also uses this scene to mock those who are too scared to stand up for their rights.
Experiences in this play echo a lawsuit (Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940)), to which the playwright Lorraine Hansberry's family was a party when they fought to have their day in court because a previous class action about racially motivated restrictive covenants (Burke v. Kleiman, 277 Ill. App. 519 (1934)) had been similar to their situation. This case was heard prior to the passage of the Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968), which prohibited discrimination in housing and created the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. The Hansberrys won their right to be heard as a matter of due process of law in relation to the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court held that the Hansberry defendants were not bound by the Burke decision because the class of defendants in the respective cases had conflicting goals, and thus could not be considered to be the same class.
Interestingly, the plaintiff in the first action in 1934 was Olive Ida Burke, who brought the suit on behalf of a property owners' association to enforce racial restrictions. Her husband, James Burke, later sold a house to Carl Hansberry (Lorraine's father) when he changed his mind about the validity of the covenant. Mr. Burke's decision may have been motivated by the changing demographics of the neighborhood, but it was also influenced by the Depression. The demand for houses was so low among white buyers that Mr. Hansberry may have been the only prospective purchaser available.
Lorraine reflects upon the litigation in her book To Be Young, Gifted, and Black:
"Twenty-five years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation's ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house. ... My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court."
The Hansberry house, a red-brick three-flat at 6140 S. Rhodes in Washington Park that they bought in 1937, was given landmark status by the Chicago City Council's Committee on Historical Landmarks Preservation in 2010.
With a cast in which all but one minor character is African-American, A Raisin in the Sun was considered a risky investment, and it took over a year for producer Philip Rose to raise enough money to launch it. There was disagreement with how it should be played, with focus on the mother or focus on the son. When the play hit New York, Poitier played it with the focus on the son and found not only his calling but an audience enthralled.
After touring to positive reviews, the play premiered on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959. It transferred to the Belasco Theatre on October 19, 1959, and closed on June 25, 1960, after 530 total performances. Directed by Lloyd Richards, the cast comprised:Sidney Poitier - Walter Lee Younger
Ruby Dee - Ruth Younger
Ivan Dixon - Joseph Asagai
Lonne Elder III - Bobo
John Fiedler - Karl Lindner
Louis Gossett - George Murchison
Claudia McNeil - Lena Younger
Diana Sands - Beneatha Younger
Glynn Turman - Travis Younger
Ed Hall - moving man
Douglas Turner - moving man
Ossie Davis later took over as Walter Lee Younger, and Frances Williams as Lena Younger.
Waiting for the curtain to rise on opening night, Hansberry and producer Rose did not expect the play to be a success, for it had already received mixed reviews from a preview audience the night before. Though it won popular and critical acclaim, reviewers argued about whether the play was "universal" or particular to African-American experience. It was then produced on tour.
A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, as well as the first with a black director (Lloyd Richards).
Hansberry noted that her play introduced details of black life to the overwhelmingly white Broadway audiences, while director Richards observed that it was the first play to which large numbers of black people were drawn. Frank Rich, in The New York Times stated that A Raisin in the Sun "changed American theater forever."
In 1960 A Raisin In The Sun was nominated for four Tony Awards:Best Play - written by Lorraine Hansberry; produced by Philip Rose, David J. Cogan
Best Actor in Play - Sidney Poitier
Best Actress in a Play - Claudia McNeil
Best Direction of a Play - Lloyd Richards
Some five months after its Broadway opening, Hansberry's play appeared in London's West End, playing at the Adelphi Theatre from August 4, 1959. As on Broadway, the director was Lloyd Richards, and the cast was as follows:Kim Hamilton - Ruth Younger
John Adan - Travis Younger
Earle Hyman - Walter Lee Younger
Olga James - Beneatha Younger
Juanita Moore - Lena Younger
Bari Johnson - Joseph Asagai
Scott Cunningham - George Murchison
Meredith Edwards - Karl Lindner
Lionel Ngakane - Bobo
The play was presented (as before) by Philip Rose and David J. Cogan, in association with the British impresario Jack Hylton.
In 1961, a film version of A Raisin in the Sun was released featuring its original Broadway cast of Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, Louis Gossett, Jr. and John Fiedler. Hansberry wrote the screenplay, and the film was directed by Daniel Petrie. It was released by Columbia Pictures and Ruby Dee won the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress. Both Poitier and McNeil were nominated for Golden Globe Awards, and Petrie received a special "Gary Cooper Award" at the Cannes Film Festival.
A musical version of the play, Raisin, ran on Broadway from October 18, 1973 to December 7, 1975. The book of the musical, which stayed close to the play, was written by Hansberry's former husband, Robert Nemiroff. Music and lyrics were by Judd Woldin and Robert Brittan. The cast included Joe Morton (Walter Lee), Virginia Capers (Momma), Ernestine Jackson (Ruth), Debbie Allen (Beneatha) and Ralph Carter (Travis, the Youngers' young son). The show won the Tony Award for Best musical.
In 1989 the play was adapted into a TV film for PBS' American Playhouse series, starring Danny Glover (Walter Lee) and Esther Rolle (Mama), with Kim Yancey (Beneatha), Starletta DuPois (Ruth), and John Fiedler (Karl Lindner). This production received three Emmy Award nominations, but all were for technical categories. Bill Duke directed the production, while Chiz Schultz produced. This production was based on an off-Broadway revival produced by the Roundabout Theatre.
A revival ran on Broadway at the Royale Theatre from April 26, 2004 to July 11, 2004 at the Royale Theatre with the following cast:Sean Combs – Walter Lee Younger
Audra McDonald – Ruth Younger
Phylicia Rashad – Lena Younger
Sanaa Lathan – Beneatha Younger
Bill Nunn – Bobo
David Aaron Baker – Karl Lindner
Lawrence Ballard – moving man
Teagle F. Bougere – Joseph Asagai
Frank Harts – George Murchison
Billy Eugene Jones – moving man
Alexander Mitchell – Travis Younger
The director was Kenny Leon with David Binder and Vivek Tiwary producers.
The play won two 2004 Tony Awards: Best Actress in a Play (Phylicia Rashad) and Best Featured Actress in a Play (Audra McDonald), and was nominated for Best Revival of a Play and Best Featured Actress in a Play (Sanaa Lathan).
In 2008, Sean Combs and Audra McDonald starred in a television film directed by Kenny Leon. The film debuted at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and was broadcast by ABC on February 25, 2008. McDonald received an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Ruth. According to Nielsen Media Research, the program was watched by 12.7 million viewers and ranked #9 in the ratings for the week ending March 2, 2008.
In 2010 Michael Buffong directed a widely acclaimed production at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, described by Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph as - “A brilliant play, brilliantly served.”. Michael Buffong, Ray Fearon and Jenny Jules all won MEN Awards. The cast were: -Jenny Jules - Ruth Younger
Ray Fearon - Walter Lee Younger
Tracy Ifeachor - Beneatha Younger
Starletta DuPois (who played Ruth in the 1989 film) - Lena Younger
Damola Adelaja - Joseph Asagai
Simon Combs - George Murchison
Tom Hodgkins - Karl Lindner
Ray Emmet Brown – Bobo/Moving Man
A second revival ran on Broadway from April 3, 2014 to June 15, 2014 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The play won three 2014 Tony Awards: Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play (Sophie Okonedo) and Best Direction of a Play (Kenny Leon).Denzel Washington – Walter Lee Younger
Sophie Okonedo – Ruth Younger
LaTanya Richardson Jackson – Lena Younger
Anika Noni Rose – Beneatha Younger
Stephen McKinley Henderson – Bobo
David Cromer – Karl Lindner
Keith Eric Chappelle – moving man
Sean Patrick Thomas – Joseph Asagai
Jason Dirden – George Murchison
Billy Eugene Jones – moving man
Bryce Clyde Jenkins – Travis Younger
On 31 January 2016 the BBC broadcast a new production of the play by director/producer Pauline Harris. This version restores the character of Mrs Johnson and a number of scenes that were cut from the Broadway production and subsequent film, with the following cast:Danny Sapani – Walter Lee Younger
Dona Croll - Lena Younger
Nadine Marshall - Ruth Younger
Lenora Crichlow - Beneatha Younger
Segun Fawole - Travis Younger
Jude Akwudike - Bobo/Asagai
Cecilia Noble - Mrs. Johnson
Sean Baker - Karl Lindner
Richard Pepple - George Murchinson
The 2010 Bruce Norris play Clybourne Park depicts the white family that sold the house to the Youngers. The first act takes place just before the events of A Raisin in the Sun, involving the selling of the house to the African American family; the second act takes place 50 years later.
The 2013 play by Kwame Kwei-Armah entitled Beneatha's Place follows Beneatha after she leaves with Asagai to Nigeria and, instead of becoming a doctor, becomes the Dean of Social Sciences at a respected (unnamed) California University.
The two above plays were referred to by Kwei-Armah as "The Raisin Cycle" and were produced together by Baltimore's Center Stage in the 2012-2013 season.