As Denzel Washington opens ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ on Broadway, Ellen Handler Spitz’ ‘Illuminating Childhood’ explores the play’s significance

by Shaun Manning on March 6, 2014

“Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, was both her first and the first by any playwright of color to astonish Broadway,” Ellen Handler Spitz writes in Illuminating Childhood: Portraits in Film, Fiction, and Drama, opening an entire chapter devoted to the play. “Crossing boundaries of race, ideology, and class, it puts onstage an unforgettable portrayal of parent-child relations, bridging all gaps, and the maturity of Hansberry’s grasp, at the age of twenty-eight, is breathtaking.”

The latest revival of A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Kenny Leon and starring Denzel Washington, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, and Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose, begins preview performances March 8. Leon, who previously directed A Raisin in the Sun ten years ago, in an interview with described Hansberry’s story as “the play that keeps on giving.” Rose said that Hansberry had “a mainline to the truth–her characters are speaking words that I think people recognize within themselves.”

In Illuminating Childhood, which explores the power of fiction and drama to teach fundamental truths about human interaction, especially within the parent/child relationship, Professor Spitz focuses on the interactions of Lena (Mama) with her children and the roles she plays within their lives. Considering the powerful scene in which Mama instructs her daughter Beneatha that “In my mother’s house there is still God,” Spitz says,

To cringe, to reel, to be stricken by the immense power that crouches, springs, and smites in this scene, one requires no belief in God or religious sentiment whatsoever. The interaction holds. It holds because this confrontation between Beneatha and Mama reanimates both onstage and offstage the most primordial human hierarchy we experience, namely, the preeminence of our mothers when we are small.

But, Spitz notes, “Lena Young knows fretfully that her two feisty adult children submit but restively to her will,” and never quite comes to terms with their maturity.  This also plays through in the behavior of Walter’s wife Ruth, who, “displaced as the ‘woman of the house’ by her mother-in-law, imitates her by failing to differentiate at times between husband and son.”

For Professor Spitz’s full and eminently readable exploration of  Hansberry’s play  and other prominent twentieth-century works, pick up Illuminating Childhood, now available in paperback. And of course if you’re in or visiting New York, Leon’s revival of A Raisin in the Sun promises an extraordinary production.

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