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A Little Poetry from A Raisin in the Sun

In the very beginning of the script of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun there is a short poem byLangston Hughes. It is called “Harlem” and goes like this:

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?

The piece is vivid and compelling. It fills the reader with how essential dreams are to a person’s life by showing them what happens when they’re ignored, or deferred. Will they dry up, crust over or even explode?

A lot of critical analysis has gone into this poem and it is arguably Hughes’s most famous. I certainly read it in high school and was therefore pleasantly surprised when I put the pieces together between the poem and the play that takes it’s name from the third line.

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Park Square’s A Raisin in the Sun. Photo by Connie Shaver.

 

Clearly Hansberry was just as transfixed by the imagery and wanted to convey the same feelings in her own work. Like the play, Hughes’s poem is universal in it’s themes , although we all know he is specifically commenting on the experiences of African Americans. Could the poem be a warning then? While not especially violent in tone, you could definitely describe the writing as bleak and ominous. The last line, “Or will it explode?”, seems to jar the reader with a sudden sense of urgency. Your mind races as you contemplate what it would mean if a dream is deferred for so long that it ruptures into a million pieces, the shrapnel flying.

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Langston Hughes

Of course great works of literature are always relevant, but by looking at the world Hughes lived in, you can better understand this sense of urgency. “Harlem” was written in 1951, only seven years before A Raisin in the Sun, and just at the cusp of the modern Civil Rights movement; Brown v. Board of Education was in 1954 and Rosa Parks made a name for herself in 1955. The timeline is evident and it’s roots stretch even further back to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s where Langston Hughes and other African American artists first rose to prominence in the United States.

Hansberry had a rich legacy then to draw from and consequently enhance. Like Hughes before her, she created a work of art so compelling in its imagery that it has lived on to inspire others and now Park Square has the chance to bring it to life.

It’s all very exciting for any fans of literature and the dramatic arts, so this concludes today’s lesson. Study up and enjoy the show!

Vincent Hannam
Vincent Hannam

Vincent S. Hannam is a Twin Cities theatre artist who acts, writes, directs and produces whenever he can. He was born and raised in Florida before somehow getting lost and ending up in Minnesota. It's been pretty great though so he thinks he'll stay. Follow him on Twitter or check out www.vincenthannam.com to find out more.

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