Act I — Scene 1
Lorraine Hansberry’s debt to Richard Wright can be noted in the similarities between Hansberry’s Walter Lee and Wright’s Bigger Thomas. Hansberry’s play even opens with the ringing of an alarm clock, as does Wright’s Native Son. Raisin opens on a Friday morning as everyone is getting ready to leave the apartment for their respective obligations: Walter Lee and Ruth have to go to their jobs; Travis and Beneatha have to go to school.
When the alarm clock rings, Ruth is the first one up, as though it is her responsibility to make certain that everyone else gets up and ready for the day ahead. Ruth is weary and overworked, a parallel to the apartment, which is worn out and weary in appearance from “accommodating the living of too many people for too many years.” The apartment consists of only two full-sized rooms, the larger one serving as both the living room and the kitchen. Travis sleeps on the living room couch. Ruth and Walter Lee’s bedroom is actually a small alcove just off the kitchen, originally intended to be a “breakfast room” for a smaller, wealthier family. Mama and Beneatha share the only actual bedroom of this “apartment.” The single bathroom is shared by their neighbors, the Johnsons, who apparently have a similar “apartment.”
Ruth appears to be annoyed with Walter, although she does not openly admit it. At first, Walter seems too preoccupied with thoughts about the insurance check to consider what might be troubling Ruth. Their conversation revolves around money and the lack thereof; even young Travis is concerned with money, as he asks, “Check coming tomorrow?” and tells Ruth that his teacher asked the students to bring fifty cents to school today.
Walter admonishes Ruth for telling Travis that they cannot give him fifty cents, and we are immediately more sympathetic to Walter than to Ruth, for their dialogue is reminiscent of the mother in Kathryn Forbes’ play I Remember Mama, who insists that children not be told when there is no money because it makes them worry. Forbes’ play revolves around a mother’s lie to her children about a nonexistent bank account. In Raisin, not only does Walter give Travis the fifty cents that he has requested, but Walter throws in an additional fifty cents — none of which he can afford. Travis never knows that Walter cannot afford to give him the money. After Travis leaves, Walter eats his breakfast; then, ready to leave for work, he tells Ruth that he needs carfare to get to work.
In this scene, note that Ruth’s annoyance with Walter is evident in the manner in which she chooses to wake him up. She is “out of sorts” about something that is not yet clear, although it appears to have something to do with Walter. She asks Walter what kind of eggs he wants, yet she ignores his request for “not scrambled” and scrambles the eggs anyway.
The characters are so real in this scene that it is difficult to take anyone’s side. When Walter expresses a desire to have the insurance money in order to invest in a business venture, he makes sense — even in his argument with Beneatha. Beneatha is a college student who will require a considerable amount of money for medical school, but the reader wonders if Beneatha’s dream for her future is more important than Walter’s. As far as we can tell, Beneatha has been given every opportunity to develop her potential. Why not the same for Walter Lee, who makes a strong point when he says of Big Walter (whose death has provided the $ 10,000): “He was my father, too!”
One of the key focuses in this scene is Mama’s concern for her family; it especially emphasizes her all-consuming love for her grandson, Travis, as she makes excuses for the careless way in which he made his bed, while re-doing it correctly for him. This scene also shows Mama’s strength as head of her household. When Beneatha displays her belligerence and “college girl” arrogance by loudly and emphatically stating that there is no God, Mama slaps her, forcing Beneatha to state aloud, “In my mother’s house there is still God.” Later, Mama acknowledges her awareness of a generational rift that appears to be growing between herself and her children.
When the scene ends, we are left with the feeling that everyone else is so self-absorbed that it is only Mama who senses immediately that something seems to be wrong with Ruth, although Ruth insists that she has to go to work regardless of how she feels. However, Ruth’s fainting at the end of this scene is proof that she really does require medical attention.
Act I — Scene 2
This scene focuses on the fierce Younger pride that Mama is constantly trying to instill in her children. Although they are poor, still their house is clean; although the furniture is old, there is still the ritualistic weekly polishing. When Asagai telephones for permission to drop by, Beneatha consents reluctantly because she knows that her mother would not want company to see the house in disarray.
This scene emphasizes the clash of cultures between the American-born black and the African. It is clear that Beneatha and Asagai love each other, but there are hints of philosophical disagreement. Asagai teases Beneatha for straightening her hair in order to conform to the European or Hollywood standard of beauty. Asagai is also more serious about their relationship than Beneatha is and appears not to fully understand or accept Beneatha’s “liberated college woman’s attitude.” Although Asagai is not offensively sexist, perhaps due to his Western education and worldly sophistication, still his views are traditionally African, circa 1959, and, therefore, somewhat chauvinistic.
Hansberry uses this scene to express her dissatisfaction with most people’s distorted perceptions about Africa. When the play opened in 1959, all that most people knew about Africa was via the broadcasts from the various colonial rulers and/or the Hollywood messages contained in Tarzan movies. Before Asagai’s arrival at the Younger apartment, Beneatha sternly admonishes her mother not to say anything embarrassingly naive or patronizing about Africa. Beneatha gives Mama some facts about Africa which Mama later parrots for Asagai’s acceptance and Beneatha’s approval. This scene significantly dramatizes the lack of understanding between parent and child. An intellectual gap, however, also compounds the generational difference between Mama and her daughter Beneatha. Mama tries so hard to impress Beneatha’s Nigerian friend that her remarks are almost comical, clearly not her intent.
Beneatha wants to know everything about Africa and is more than pleased when Asagai gives her authentic Nigerian robes, along with some recordings of African music. After Asagai leaves, Beneatha tries on her new identity. Ruth comes into the room just as Travis goes downstairs to get the mail. When Walter enters and begins talking about his plans for the money, everyone ignores him so he resorts to shouting: “WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE LISTEN TO ME TODAY?”
Even if Walter’s ideas were unacceptable and offensive, someone in his family should have taken the time to listen. The frustration Walter Lee exhibits in this scene is recognizable by everyone who has ever felt ignored in spite of loud cries to be heard. It is difficult in such a crowded atmosphere as the Younger household for one person to be singled out and heard. The Youngers do not mean to ignore Walter Lee and are not totally aware that they are doing so. They are simply caught up in the excitement of the moment — the receipt of the check.
The original production of this play, as well as the original movie screenplay, does not contain the incident involving Travis’ chasing a huge rat while he is downstairs playing with his friends in the street. The scene is included in the PBS presentation, however. Hansberry wrote the “rat scene” to dramatically point out the graphic terrors that daily confront the children of the poor and also to show that these children must learn to incorporate such horrific realities into their playtime activities.
Act II — Scene 1
This scene emphasizes Beneatha’s naivete about African culture, for although she is wearing the Nigerian robe and headdress, she is “fanning herself with an ornate oriental fan” and inadvertently appears more Asian than African. Also, Ruth reveals her lack of knowledge about things African as she questions Beneatha about the Nigerian outfit and dance. Walter’s sudden intrusion into the dance is comical on the surface, but on a deeper level, Walter Lee appears somewhat tragic as he attempts to recapture his lost African past.
Even though Walter knows little about Africa, he immediately falls into step with the ritualistic dance and chants as though a psychic memory serves him.
Most blacks wanting to gain acceptance and possible wealth would have to throw off their African past and assimilate, as George has done, which includes deriding and belittling their African culture.
Although Asagai has received a Western-style education, as George Murchison has, Asagai does not have a problem of identity. He knows who he is because he is African. Murchison, on the other hand, knows nothing of his African past, despises the little he knows of his heritage, and, therefore, hates himself. His self-hatred manifests itself in his contemptuous attitude toward other blacks, especially toward less wealthy and less educated blacks like Walter.
Both Beneatha and George Murchison seem to be pedants, showing off their learning, but George is offensive when he flaunts his knowledge in order to insult and degrade others. Although George suspects that Ruth has never been to the theater — and certainly not a theater in another state — he insists on giving Ruth unnecessary information about the difference between curtain times in Chicago and New York’s theaters.
George calls Walter Lee “Prometheus” in order to subtly insult Walter, but mainly to point out Walter’s lack of learning. This scene clearly reveals Walter Lee’s lack of formal education because Walter assumes that George has simply invented the name “Prometheus” to annoy him.
TO BE CONTINUED
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