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The "Clybourne Park" in A Raisin in the Sun

In January 1959, the national conversation about race centered on the topic of neighborhood integration, particularly that of black families moving into white neighborhoods. The discussion, which had been triggered by a series of earlier court battles (Hansberry v. Lee, 1940; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 1954; et. al.) was given new energy by playwright Lorraine Hansberry and her play A Raisin in the Sun.

The play concerns an African-American family, the Younger family, whose matriarch Lena is set to inherit $10,000 in life insurance from her late husband’s policy. The family of five—Lena’s daughter Beneatha, her son Walter Lee and his wife Ruby and son Travis—lives on Chicago’s South Side in a tiny apartment, with a shared bathroom down the hall. The prospect of the imminent inheritance engenders a furious storm of hopes, dreams, and impatient accusations. The family ultimately uses the money to buy a home in a white neighborhood of the city, which Hansberry fictionally names “Clybourne Park.” Karl Lindner, the only white character within Hansberry’s play and a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, offers to buy the Youngers’ recently acquired home back from them. His efforts are motivated by a desire for a very specific type of population control—to prevent new black neighbors from moving to the white community. Although the offer is initially rebuffed by Walter Lee, an unfortunate investment that results in Walter being swindled of half of his father’s insurance money, prompts Hansberry’s protagonist to consider accepting Lindner’s money and, in so doing, to tacitly accept the Clybourne Park Improvement Association’s racist views. “I’ll look that son-of-a-bitch right in his eye and say—‘All right, Mr. Charlie. All right, Mr. Lindner—that’s your neighborhood out there! You got a right to keep it like you want! You got a right to have it like you want! Just write the check and the house is yours.’ And—and I am going to say—‘And you—you people just put the money in my hand and you won’t have to live next to this bunch of stinking niggers!" - A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (New York: Vintage, 1986), p. 144. With these words, Walter places a spotlight on the intersection of race and community. He gestures to the logic that supported six decades of Jim Crow legislation, that enabled “separate but equal” to exist, that justified the abuse of black bodies when they inadvertently crossed the invisible line that separated “their” and “our” sections of town, beach, bus, diner, store. He reveals the bias that lies at the heart of efforts to prevent African-Americans from ever becoming neighbors to white homeowners. Ultimately, the Youngers resolve to make the move and A Raisin in the Sun ends as the family moves out of their too-small apartment into a home with a yard in an unwelcoming, potentially hostile community. A Raisin in the Sun, the first black drama produced on Broadway, was an immediate critical and commercial success. Theater critics praised the 1959 production, cited its broad appeal, and frequently compared it to canonical theatrical works. As Brooks Atkinson observed in his New York Times review, “You might, in fact, regard A Raisin in the Sun as a Negro The Cherry Orchard.” Brooks Atkinson, “A Raisin in the Sun,” (New York Times, March 12, 1959.) Audiences, of all colors, flocked to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway and demonstrated through their presence and dollars that people were interested in seeing and hearing African-American experiences portrayed on the stage. The play established Lorraine Hansberry as a major playwright and a leading voice of the American Theater in the 1960s, enhanced the already lustrous reputation of film actor Sidney Poitier and launched the careers of a series of individuals who would actively reshape the look and sound of American theater over the next generation, including director Lloyd Richards and actors Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Glenn Turman and Douglas Turner Ward. Over the years, A Raisin in the Sun maintained its popularity and with every remount, revival and adaptation catalyzed a discussion of race in the United States by drawing attention to the tensions and anxieties related to neighborhood integration. In 1961, the original cast reunited to appear in a film version of the play. Twelve years later, A Raisin in the Sun was adapted into a musical, Raisin, which ran for two years on Broadway and received the Tony Award for best musical. Since then, Hansberry’s play has seen numerous productions, the most recent being the Tony Award-nominated 2004 Broadway revival with Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Audra Mcdonald as headliners.