Understanding Drama and Research
Paper 3: Understanding Drama and Research
For this writing assignment, you will use Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun as your primary text. As we discussed in class, Amiri Baraka claims the purpose of Black Theater is “to liberate,” to create Black consciousness. First performed on Broadway in 1959, this play addresses several of the concerns and themes that stem from the ideas of Black Theater and the larger Black Arts Movement. Many of the play’s themes deal with tradition, freedom (economic and social), gender roles, identity, dreams, pride, and love. Your goal is to seek ways of understanding one of the themes or major conflicts in the play and to explain how the writer attempts to explore and/or resolve the issue.
Audience: You are writing for a diverse audience of college-educated readers who have read the play (thus, you should avoid unnecessary plot summary). Proofread your work with a critical eye, and maintain formal language and style to reflect appropriate audience consideration.
Purpose: You are to illustrate your knowledge of drama as literature and of relevant literary criticism; in particular, your research should be centered on finding secondary sources—what other literary critics have to say about the play. You are to attempt to bring something fresh to the literary discourse community concerning drama, more specifically Black Theater, and its applications to the primary text. You must illustrate careful consideration of the contextual issues that shape our understanding of the issue you selected from the play.
Format: This essay should be around 4-6 pages and must employ MLA rules. You are required to use 3-6 outside sources1 (at least 3 of those sources must be scholarly secondary sources from the library; if, in addition to your library sources, you use a website, you should get prior approval to ensure it is appropriate for academic writing. The research should not be used for plot-based information but for supporting analysis to help illustrate your points. The final page of the essay (not included in the page length requirement!) will be a complete Works Cited (a list of the sources you used and cited in the essay). If you have any questions about MLA formatting and citations, please refer to the numerous handouts on this in the Canvas module, and you can consult a credible online source (such as Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab). I’m including a few ideas about the play to get you started on the research process. You are not required to answer any of these specific questions, as they are merely suggestions for potential topics. If you are interested in exploring any of these ideas, limit yourself to one focus/prompt (i.e., one bullet point), and develop it completely through your own commentary that is supported both with secondary sources and the play. You must make sure your thesis can be supported throughout the entire play, and you must work on ensuring you retain the “so what?” focus of that thesis.
THEMES AND MOTIFS Dreams: o Rooted in Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem (A Dream Deferred),” explain how the play does (or doesn’t) answer his question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Use themes and characters to help explain your point.
The title of the play comes from a line in the Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem”: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / Like a raisin in the sun?” The idea of dreams—and their drying up—is prominent in the play. Everyone talks of dreams: Walter Lee has dreams of becoming a wealthy businessman; Lena dreams of a house all her own with a garden; Beneatha dreams of becoming a doctor; Ruth dreams of peace and contentment within her family. Alas, all of these dreams seem out of reach. The 1 At least three of those sources should be secondary sources (works that specifically analyze ARitS). You are to limit the number of block quotes to two. Also, avoid overviews; consult overviews as a reference and not as a source unless they offer literary criticism. All web pages must have my approval, and they must be credible cites (typically domain names with -.edu, .gov, or .org).
tension in the play lies in the question of whether any of these dreams will become realized; the concept of “a dream deferred” drives the action. The notion of the American Dream provides a larger context for the characters’ individual dreams. A somewhat vague concept, the term “The American Dream” is often used to refer to material success, home ownership, financial independence, and upward social mobility. Walter Lee in particular holds the expectation that, because he is American, he is entitled to a certain way of life, but he also knows that the fact that he is an African American in White-dominated American culture prevents him from achieving the material success he craves. Consider the characters’ expectations of prosperity as tied to the larger American culture—what, for instance, does Walter Lee believe he deserves because he is American? How does being Black affect his definition and pursuit of success? How do the concepts of double consciousness affect their dreams? How do dreams affect characters’ senses of identity?
Success/Values and the Generation Gap: o Examine how the values of the different generations of the Younger family embody the transitioning phases of the African American experience at that unique point of intersection that was 1959—that moment in U.S. history when the postwar economic boon that seemed to put the American Dream within everyone’s reach was ending, and the very sanctity of that dream was about to come under increasingly heavy fire from the various liberation groups of the 1960s. Walter Lee defines success as material and financial gain. Beneatha defines success as self-actualization, or learning about and nurturing oneself. But to their mother, Lena, success is less self-centered and lies more in creating a happy, healthy family. Lena frequently compares her children’s values to her own and her late husband’s and finds her children to be less moral or spiritual in their hopes and dreams. She does not believe that material success will elevate the family, as Walter Lee does, instead observing that his grasping after this idea of success is damaging his family. Beneatha’s quest for self-actualization seems to involve her attempted denial of anything that would tie her values or interests to those of her family. Consider the generational differences in defining success, but also consider how Walter Lee’s and Beneatha’s notions of success do resemble the values of their parents.
Lena represents an old order, one in which the younger generation respects its elders and in which religious faith—rather than material wealth—is at the center of life. Her children—disrespectful at times, opinionated, and success-hungry—represent the newer world that Lena cannot understand. Many of the struggles between the mother and her adult children revolve around one’s misunderstanding of the other’s perspective. In many ways, Ruth is a type of bridge character: she is a member of the younger generation by virtue of her age, but her “family first” mentality and her belief in hard work and respect is more in line with Lena’s values. Lena has yet to relinquish her authority and power in the family and continues to treat her children as children in spite of their age. By the end of the play, she finally defers to her son as head of the household when he begins to rise to the role. What change in the characters’ values takes place in order for this shift in power to occur? Ultimately, what—if any—values are shared by the family?
Men and Women and Identity: o What about relationships between men and women is admired or expected in the play? How do these relationships fit into the theme of dreams? For example, Walter often complains that he cannot be a man without the support of the women in his family. How do differences in the definition of what manhood is contribute to the conflict and resolution? Explore the power dynamics between male and female characters in the play and how they tie into ideas of liberation and success.
o Identity is a key issue in A Raisin in the Sun; readers see Beneatha in search of her own identity, but ironically, she is searching for herself (at least in part) through the men she dates. Explain if you see Beneatha as a conformist or rebel/feminist.
o Another key conflict developed in the play is traditional roles vs. non-traditional; for instance, Beneatha represents the non-traditional roles of women, whereas Ruth represents the traditional role of women. Then explain which character (if any) advocates Baraka’s claim concerning liberation.
o Explore Walter Lee’s attempts to reconcile his “two warring ideals,” the two halves of his identity—a Black man and an American (what W.E.B. Du Bois calls “double consciousness”). Trace Walter’s “longing to attain self-conscious manhood, [and his efforts] to merge his double self into a better and truer self” (Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, Ch. 1). How does Walter define manhood? Does that definition change by the end of the play? What obstacles does he face in his attempts to attain “self-
conscious manhood,” and if he is finally able to achieve a “better and truer self,” how does he finally reach that goal?
Relationships between men and women in the play vary while commenting upon each other. Ruth is practical while Walter Lee is a dreamer, and Walter Lee complains that Ruth doesn’t understand or support him in his dreams, lamenting that Black women in general don’t stand behind Black men. George Murchison wants Beneatha to scale back her dreams and simply be a pretty girl on his arm. Asagai understands the passion and imagination that motivate Beneatha, precisely the qualities for which George criticizes her, but wants to take her to Africa as his wife, away from her family. Lena speaks lovingly and admiringly of her late husband, Big Walter, who took care of his family but was “wild with women.” Consider exploring how Walter’s goal throughout the play is to establish himself as the “man” of the household, a goal he feels is made nigh impossible without the support of the women in the family and the ability to emulate the successful (mostly White) men he sees; take into account the internal conflict of double-consciousness Walter struggles with due to his “sense of always looking at [him]self through the eyes of others, of measuring [his] soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk). Ironically, he depends on the women in the family to grant him this attainment of manhood and show him what being a man truly means (a concept your paper should define through the play).
African-American Pride and Heritage: o Address the play within the historical and cultural context of the civil rights movements and the emergence of Afrocentrism and the Black Power Movement. How does a contextual analysis that focuses on the play being set in this time period illuminate our understanding of Hughes’s “dream deferred”?
The play pokes some fun at Beneatha’s zealous ethnic pride, yet her views are a reminder that African Americans had—at least at the time this play was written and produced—to a large extent, lost touch with their African heritage. What does Beneatha think should be done about this problem? Why does her family tease her about her views? How do her beliefs about racial and ethnic pride relate to the play’s larger theme of dreams, and specifically the dreams of the disenfranchised? African American pride takes other forms as well, such as Lena’s pride regarding her family’s endurance and hard work and their “history of strife” (Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk) and Walter Lee’s transformed view of himself at the end of the play as a responsible member of a proud family. Is African American pride ultimately the value that unites, and in some ways, saves the Younger family?
Race in the United States: o How, in general, does the play portray relationships between Black people and between Black and White people in the U.S.? Whose America does it appear to be, and why? How do the African American characters see their place in the United States, and how have their views shaped their lives?
The main White character in the play, Karl Lindner, exists solely to attempt to exclude the Youngers, a Black family, from the White world. Walter Lee is a White man’s chauffeur, and Ruth cooks/cleans for a White woman. How does the characters’ awareness of the power of White stereotypes on Black life and thought affect their sense of self (a manifestation of double-
Explore race and identity issues within the Black community. Walter claims that Black women hold their men back. Beneatha and George struggle over how American Blacks should live their lives: as “assimilationists” or as proud defenders of their African heritage. Please note: do not choose the topic of race and simply spend your whole paper telling me that Black people faced racism at this time. You must go beyond the obvious.
Natural Imagery—Light/The Plant:
o Pay attention to what is happening in the action whenever light or the plant is mentioned (both in dialogue and stage directions). Is the natural imagery meant to emphasize some aspect of the plot? Or does it represent hope, or relate to the theme of dreams? Explore the possible symbolism. Please be aware that there is not much criticism about the play devoted entirely to this topic. You may want to incorporate this as a supporting part of a larger argument. In the Youngers’ dark, cramped city apartment, the natural world seems far away, as evidenced by the single small window in the apartment. Yet images of light permeate the play, and Lena’s tiny plant becomes an occasional focal point. Consider the element of Lena’s dream that involves a garden and the symbolic implications of her character’s values. Use these sources.