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Arts

Susan Saccoccia | 3/20/2013, 11:02 a.m.
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“Bitter?” says Walter Lee Younger in the powerful Huntington t Company production of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 masterpiece, “A Raisin in the Sun,” at the BU Theatre in Boston through April 7. “Man, I’m a volcano.”

As he sizes up George, the well-heeled collegian calling on his sister, Beneatha, Walter seethes with frustration. Like his spirited sister, who wants to be a doctor, Walter too is bursting with dreams. He works as a chauffeur, but longs to be the executive riding in the back seat. Yet he feels powerless to change his life.

He numbs his pain with beer, considers a dicey scheme to buy a liquor store and lives in his mother’s cramped apartment with his wife, Ruth, and son Travis, who sleeps on the living room sofa. His mother, Lena, shares her bed with Beneatha.  

The promise of a better life comes with the life insurance settlement of the deceased family patriarch, Big Walter. Lena wants the money to fund Beneatha’s education and buy a home for her family. But when she chooses one in an all-white neighborhood — where houses are nicer and cost less — a community spokesman informs the Youngers that a black family is not welcome and offers to buy them out.

Walter sees the offer is degrading but he needs the money. How he resolves this dilemma is the turning point of the play.

Hansberry took the play’s title from the 1951 Langston Hughes poem “Harlem,” which begins, “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?”

Hansberry sets the play in Chicago’s South Side, where her family’s house is now a Chicago historic landmark. Her father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, a real estate broker, bought the house in 1938. Then, the neighborhood was white and its residents drew up a restrictive covenant barring African Americans. He fought it all the way to the US Supreme Court, which in 1940 voided the covenant.

Remembering this “hellishly hostile” neighborhood, two decades later Hansberry created a landmark work of American dramatic literature. At age 29, she became the youngest playwright to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play and the first African American playwright to be produced on Broadway.

Opening to standing ovations on March 11, 1959, “Raisin in the Sun” was the first Broadway production directed by an African American (Lloyd Richards). Its stars, Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett performed in a movie version three years later.

Few modern playwrights have achieved the impact of Hansberry, who died just six years later, succumbing to pancreatic cancer at age 34. Since its debut, her play has been in continuous production throughout the world. Kenny Leon directed a 2004 Broadway revival and a 2008 TV movie starring Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald. The women won Tony awards for their portrayals of Lena and Ruth.

Directed by Liesl Tommy, the Huntington Theatre staging brings out the full grandeur of Hansberry’s play, which in the poetry of everyday language tells the story not only of Walter but also of his family and their struggle to achieve a good life.