Splitting Hairs: How One Cut Changed A Raisin in the Sun

Splitting Hairs: How One Cut Changed A Raisin in the Sun

When A Raisin in the Sun burst onto the Broadway scene in the Spring of 1959, it broke new ground for African American theater professionals. It was the first Broadway show written by an African American woman, Lorraine Hansberry. Also, with Lloyd Richards at the helm, it was the first Broadway production directed by a black man. The content itself also spoke deeply of the black experience in mid-century Chicago. The plot tells the story of the Younger family and their attempt to leave their southside ghetto and move into a white neighborhood. The narrative follows the lives of the family members, as the women struggle through higher education, pregnancies, and domestic work, while the men struggle with crushed career aspirations, defining black manhood, and growing up in a segregated world.[1]

The “blackness” of the work cannot be denied, and financial backers were concerned that the production was not “universal” enough for the majority white audiences which frequented New York’s mainstream theater scene. However, since Raisin’s debut, the work has been praised for being just that. Ossie Davis wrote in 1985 that “…some people were ecstatic to find out that it didn’t have to be about Negroes at all!” The show was a success and critics time and time again have praised the power and “everyman” themes within the narrative. Yet one essential cut, made from the original 1959 version of the show, could have deeply changed the way white audiences perceived this production.

The Great Way way, in more ways than one.
The Great White way, in more ways than one.

Robert Nemiroff states in his introduction to the 1986 Vintage Books edition that a scene where 20 year old Beneatha unveils her shorn, natural hair, was edited out of Raisin’s first Broadway run. Nemiroff claims this was due to the “unflattering” nature the actress’s haircut, and that Hansberry feared it would imply . [2] Yet another reason cannot be ignored. Black hair, specifically black women’s hair, was and continues to be a highly personal and political aspect of the African American community. [3] The politics behind the decision to wear one’s hair “natural” had not previously been explored in a major Broadway play. There is nothing universal about black women’s hair and the conversations surrounding it. The long history of black women feeling pressure to “tame” their hair, through chemicals and heat, would have been understood instantly by black audiences, while possibly leaving white audience members indifferent or confused. The cut scene is a uniquely black, uniquely female moment in the original script, and the scene would have mystified a pre-feminism, pre-“Black is Beautiful” white audience.

This brings us to several questions regarding the great critical acclaim and widespread popularity of A Raisin in the Sun. Does one aspect of this play’s success lay in its ability to sidestep distinctively African American cultural mores, and instead rely on the universality of its themes? Would white critics still have praised it if the play came across “blacker” due to addressing this specifically African American topic? And is Raisin as universal as critics at the time claimed, or is this claim just white audiences trying to identify with the black characters in this brilliant, challenging, and moving piece of African American literature?

[1] Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun: With Introduction by Robert Nemiroff (New York: Vintage International, 1986)

[2]Hansberry, 6.

[3]”Combing Through the Deeply Rooted Politics of Black Hair Issues,” Jezebel (http://jezebel.com/5347059/combing-through-the-deeply-rooted-politics-of-black-hair-issues)

Catherine Saint Louis, “Black Hair, Still Tangled in Politics,” The New York Times, August 29th 2009, (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/27/fashion/27SKIN.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=style&adxnnlx=1251363609-zTjyegzxHBmhbgzXIDV79A)

8 thoughts on “Splitting Hairs: How One Cut Changed A Raisin in the Sun

  1. I was excite to have this book on our class syllabus as I have always wanted to see the 1961 movie starring Sidney Poitier. I was amazed at the change in phrases and words from book to film in an attempt to connect to white audiences as well as black, as I expect the play did on Broadway. The choices made were very interesting…in fact I noticed several swear words removed!

  2. I absolutely think that some of this play’s success on Broadway was because of the universality of its themes. White people will never understand what being black means, and because of this the only way they can find a connection is by making it “less black.” In addition to that, confronting race through mediums like radio, tv, and Broadway were easier than accepting them or even beginning to confront them at face value. It was easier to engage with such material in an audience setting where the viewer can watch the play and consider it for a moment, but forget the message delivered, if they want to, the moment they leave the theater.

  3. I, like Sam, think that there is something to the universal themes that contribute to this play’s success in the eye’s of the critics. However, I am finding it difficult to judge how a white audience at the time of its release would truly see the play. Reading it today in 2013, I found myself at times seeing the Younger family as just a family while interacting with each other, forgetting all together about their race. There are other times when their race came forefront in my mind. I wonder what a reader in the late 50s would think. Would they have ever been able to view them as just a family?

  4. As I read this story, I thought of our current housing situation. With mass foreclosures, developments have seen changes in the preconceived demographics that were originally thought to occupy the homes. I recently heard a story about a neighborhood that was meant to be buyer occupied, but as a result of the housing bubble bursting, it was instead occupied by renters. Occupancy changed often, and the plan for a neighborhood where everyone knew was shifted. One home owner who occupied the house they built bought in the community becuase although at the top of their budget, they liked the idea their children would grow up and go to school with their neighbors – they lamented that this was not the case. Although not a racial divide as in Raisin in the Sun, I see the struggles of a family that looked to better their living situation, saw a road to that dream, and then saw the veil removed, revealing something they had not expected.

  5. I, too, was surprised by the way that Robert Nemiroff dismissed the decision to cut the hair-cutting scene from the original production. I have to admit that I have only recently come to really understand how political the (seemingly) banal decision of hairstyle can be for women of color. It’s really tough not to see that cut as political, or at the very least, as an attempt to soften the distinctly African-American edges of the play. I have to wonder if Nemiroff, as a man, maybe didn’t grasp the full significance of the decision.

  6. It is such a shame that the scene where Beneatha decides to show her hair in its natural state got cut from the original production. European standards of beauty still continue to permeate our society even 50 years later. As a young girl, I always wished that my hair was straight, like white person’s, to the point where I began to hate myself and my Afro-centric features. I wonder if this scene has continued to be ignored in recent productions of this play. I truly hope not. Seeing depictions of African American women wearing their hair naturally, as Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun, will help young people of color better learn to love themselves.

  7. The inclusion of a character from Nigeria was something that really stood out, especially since Black people in both the United States and Africa were protesting for their rights when the play was written.

    It really added an international perspective to what Black identity meant at the time. Being Black in Africa meant (and still does mean) something different from being Black in America. With the hair issue, while the play’s American characters found Beneatha’s decision to wear her hair naturally and wear the Nigerian robes shocking, he thought it was perfectly fine. Beneatha asserts her African heritage as a way to get away from what White society has deemed beautiful or proper.

  8. What stands out to me from what you say about the reviews of the play is that people saw “universality” and “blackness” as completely mutually exclusive, and that the lives of African American are so different that white people could never understand or care about their lives. Particularly the line “…some people were ecstatic to find out that it didn’t have to be about Negroes at all!” suggests that “some people” just couldn’t handle the idea of black people as people at all. Is it possible that some white audiences were just surprised that they could identify with a black family at all? I’m having a difficult time, imagining how white audiences of the time might have responded to an issue that is so unique to black women, as Abbie said, pre-feminism and pre- “black is beautiful” campaigns, but I’m not sure that including it would have greatly affected white reactions to the play as a whole.

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