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.
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.
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 .  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.  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?
 Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun: With Introduction by Robert Nemiroff (New York: Vintage International, 1986)
”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)