I taught the first day of Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun today, which means I reread it just before teaching to prep. I've liked the play pretty well since the first time I read it, and I've found it wonderful to teach, but it was even better this time. I was pondering my response, since I was almost in tears in my office (you should see me when I merely pick up a copy of Cyrano). I think the thing that's changed for me is that my father has died, and I've seen my mother's loss, and I've thought long and hard about what it means to get and/or spend money left through someone else's death. (My Great Aunt also died and our family friend Hillis.)
There's a scene in the play when a white man (Karl Lindner) from the neighborhood "welcoming committee" comes to the Younger apartment to convince them to sell the house they've just gotten a mortgage on rather than moving into the all white neighborhood. When Lindner comes to the door, the husband and wife, Walter Lee and Ruth, are dancing to some music, and Walter Lee's sister, Beneatha, answers the door. She turns to mouth to the couple dancing that there's a white man at the door, and they turn off the music and recompose themselves before Walter Lee introduces himself as the man of the house.
I think there's something absolutely brilliant in that little moment. There's an African American family, just relaxing and being a family happy for having bought a house, and then a white man comes, and the family immediately stages itself anew for this white audience, this white interloper. They suddenly play at being "respectable for a white audience" and drop the sense of homeness.and relaxation.
And Lindner is coming to tell them that it's not a racial prejudice issue, but the whites in the new neighborhood really don't want a Black family moving in. His insistence that it's not a "racial prejudice" issue brings out the racial prejudice point, of course.
And then we step back. Here we are in the audience, probably, in 1959, and maybe even today on Broadway, a mostly white audience, watching an African American cast stage itself for us in a play by an African American woman (and originally directed by an African American director, I think). We're watching the staging of blackness, the performance of blackness, and it redoubles the experience because the play stages blackness for a mostly white audience, and that blackness is about respectability and what it means to be Black in a white dominated society.
I love metadrama, where a play talks about itself as drama, or talks about all our experience as being dramatic. But this moment goes beyond that pleasure and really asks the audience to think about the staging of blackness and what it means to play blackness in a white theater tradition. We get to see what seems on one level to be a "real" African American home, but it's a staged African American home; we can't get the real in the theater, but we're reminded again of how much staging is often involved in our relations, especially between members of dominant and non-dominant groups. We're asked to identify with Lindner for this passage, and to think about our own racism, too.
And yet, of course, on another level, it's not really about me at all, right? If I imagine an audience made primarily of people of color, then I can't put my white dominant self at the center.
I love when a moment in art can totally make me feel and think at the same time, when it moves me to sadness and anger and hope and thoughtfulness.