By Ryan D. Paul
Anyone watching the Utah Shakespeare Festival in the summer of 1989 could easily see that Fred and Barbara Adams had built their dream. The Utah Shakespeare Festival had increased in ticket sales, budget, and popularity since its first production twenty-seven years earlier. The Festival had expanded its season and had become a draw for thousands of tourists each year. The summer productions in the Adams Memorial Shakespearean Theatre had sellout crowds nearly every night. However, on a yellow notepad years ago, Fred and Barbara had also envisioned a space for other plays—works from the world’s greatest dramatists—the “Shakespeares of other lands,” as Fred called them.
These playwrights, like William Shakespeare, defined and defied their national cultures. Fred saw the power that drama had to shape and forge a national consciousness; certainly Shakespeare did that for Britain, and Festival patrons deserved to see that same power coming from French, Russian, German, and American dramatists. This 2023 season the Utah Shakespeare Festival continues Fred’s vision of producing “Shakespeares of other lands” with the production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.
The play takes place in an apartment on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s. The Younger family: Walter, his wife Ruth and son Travis, along with Walter’s mother Lena, and his younger sister Beneatha, are anxiously awaiting a $10,000 life insurance check due to the recent death of Walter and Beneatha’s father. Walter is providing for the family by working as a limousine driver and desperately wants more out of life, which in his mind translates to being rich. An investment opportunity arises with some friends who want to open a liquor store, making the need for the insurance money that much more urgent.
Complicating Walter’s dreams for the future, his mother strongly objects on religious grounds to alcohol and raises serious concerns about spending the money this way and is supported in this by her daughter Beneatha. Once the check arrives, Mama decides to put $3500 down on a new house for the family and chooses to move into an all-white neighborhood instead of a black one. She relents to Walter and gives him the remaining $6500 providing he saves $3000 of it for his sister’s education. He agrees, but fails to do so by investing all the funds into the store and loses the money. Other social, economic, and cultural issues swirl around the Younger family and they grapple with the consequences of the loss of the funds and the impending move to a new house. Have their dreams, hopes and desires been denied, or simply deferred? In fact, the title of the play comes from the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem:” “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
Lorraine Hansberry, wrote A Raisin in the Sun in 1957 and when the play opened in 1959, she became the first African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Hansberry had grown up in Chicago where her successful real-estate broker father had purchased a home in a subdivision that was predominately white. The Hansberrys’ neighbors attempted to legally force them to move and the case eventually ended up in the United States Supreme Court where in the case of Hansberry v. Lee the Court sided in favor of her father. This case marked the beginning of the end for radically restrictive housing covenants.
Both of Lorraine’s parents were politically active in Republican politics in Chicago and their home was often visited by many prominent African American voices of the day such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Jesse Owens, and Duke Ellington. Lorraine once wrote that she was taught as a young girl that “Above all, there were two things which were never to be betrayed: the family and the race” (Anderson, “Lorraine Hansberry’s Freedom Family” (2008), pp. 260–261). As she grew older she worked with Alice Childress who wrote Trouble in Mind (presented by USF last season) and became close friends with James Baldwin. When Hansberry died in 1965 at the age of 34 of pancreatic cancer, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commented: “Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn” (Nemiroff, “Born Black and Female” (1971) Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust).
A Raisin in the Sun received both popular and critical praise and in 1960 garnered four Tony nominations in the Best Play, Acting, and Directing categories. It has been adapted into a musical, radio dramas, film and television productions, and revived on Broadway many times. Hansberry’s play has been elevated to one of essential plays in American theatre.
The questions and issues raised by Hansberry in this play are both of a historical and current nature. Hansberry biographer Imani Perry writes “People were all too happy to read Hansberry’s play as a story of middle-class aspiration, an assimilationist dream about Black people using an insurance check to move into a nice white neighborhood, when in fact Hansberry wanted theatergoers to understand the depth of the injustice experienced by the Younger family. At the conclusion of the play, though they are integrating into a white neighborhood, that integration almost certainly promises to be a painful and even violent encounter” (Perry, “Revisiting ‘A Raisin in the Sun’” (2022) The Atlantic). Families continue to struggle with housing insecurity, with the challenge of discovering how money can possibly change our lives. That injustice still exists and what can be done to recognize and change communities and relationships for the better?
Recently, while having a discussion with Festival Interim Artistic Director Derek Charles Livingston, who is also directing this production, he mentioned one of the exciting things about producing A Raisin in the Sun this season is that this play speaks to many of the things that make our Cedar City community great. This play is about the power of family. This play is about the power of faith. This play is about the power of identity, of finding out who you are, and who you can be. This play is about the strength that positive relationships and role models can bring to our lives. This play is about place and the definition of what home is.
Fred Adams devoutly believed not only in the power of theatre to change lives, but the power of doing theatre in this place as a transformational experience. The reason he wanted a space to showcase “Shakespeares of other lands” was because he understood that William Shakespeare did not have a lock on all things human, that other stories, other authors could continue and expand on the themes and issues he raised. A Raisin in the Sun takes us to a place we need to be, a place we can continue to learn why theatre is important, and what it means to be human.