Throughout Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, one character hovers over the entire play as a specter of the past. This character is Big Walter, Lena’s husband and Benetha and Walter Lee’s father. Even though he does not appear on stage in the script, he exists as an important part of the narrative. His death, which we do not see, causes the action within the play because the entire family awaits the $10,000 insurance check from the passing of the family’s patriarch.
The first mention of Big Walter, by name, occurs when Lena tells Ruth what she has been thinking about doing with the insurance money. Lena tells Ruth about her plans to buy a house and about how when they got married her and Big Walter planned to live in the apartment for a short time before moving to Morgan Park. However, as the years passed by, the couple did not move. Instead, they remained in the apartment, an apartment that begun to become weary and tired.
She talks about the dream of owning a house in Morgan Park fading away. Lena tells Ruth that everyday Big Walter would come home “slump down on that couch there and just look at the rug, and look at me and look at the rug and then back at me—and I’d know he was down then … really down.” Big Walter’s staring at the rug draws attention back to the opening stage directions that describe the set: “And here a table or a chair has been moved to disguise the worn places in the carpet; but the carpet has fought back by showing its weariness, with depressing uniformity, elsewhere on its surface.” The dreams that Big Walter and Lena had have been defeated, and like Big Walter staring at the rug, the apartment highlights the ways that the world has trampled on those dreams, creating a weariness and tiredness that pervades the play.
Systemic racism and oppression beat Big Walter and the Younger family down. Unable to get ahead or even break even, Big Walter, as Lena says, “finally worked hisself to death.” Walter Lee, Ruth, Benetha, Lena, and Travis all continue to work themselves to death, never being able to get ahead. Walter Lee even asks Ruth, “You tired, ain’t you? Tired of everything. Me, the boy, the way we live–this beat-up hole–everything. Ain’t you?” Like James Baldwin says, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
Even with the constant struggle and fighting to make it out of the “rat trap” apartment in Chicago, Big Walter remained hopeful, if not for himself then for his children. Lena tells Ruth about Big Walter always wanting his children “to have something–be something.” He even told her, “Seem like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams–but he did give us children to make them dreams seem worthwhile.” These are the same hopes and dreams that Walter Lee and Ruth have for Travis.
Walter Lee has become Big Walter in the play. Early on, he tells Ruth, “This morning, I was lookin’ in the mirror and thinking about it . . . I’m thirty-five years old; I been married eleven years and I got a boy who sleeps in the living room–(Very, very quietly)–and all I got to give him is stories about how rich white people live . . .” Walter Lee wants Travis to have a better life. When Lena tells him that she will give him some of the money, he takes Travis aside and tells him about all of the things he will be able to provide for his son in the future: education, travel, a big house.
While Ruth does not focus on money in the same way that Walter Lee does, she wants her family to have a house and stability. She tells Walter Lee, ” Honey . . . life don’t have to be like this. I mean sometimes people can do things so that things are better . . . You remember how we used to talk when Travis was born . . . about the way we were
going to live . . . the kind of house . . . Well, it’s all starting to slip away from us …” Like Big Walter and Lena’s dreams, Ruth and Walter Lee’s dreams begin to fade away. However, the resurface with the insurance money.
The family receives the money because Big Walter dies. As such, his presence manifests itself tangibly on stage in the form of the check. This is driven home at multiple points in the play. At one point, Joseph Asagai asks Benetha, “Then isn’t there something wrong in a house–in a world–where all dreams, good or bad, must depend in the death of a man?” Later, Walter Lee screams at Bobo, “THAT MONEY IS MADE OUT OF MY FATHER’S FLESH–”
Back in 2013, I had the opportunity to catch Liesl Tommy’s production of A Raisin in the Sun at Boston’s Huntington Theatre. Tommy’s production brought Big Walter (Corey Allen), physically, to the stage. Initially, he would sit along the walls in the background or in other areas of the apartment, almost blending in with the set itself. Stoicly, he would remain, not saying a word or interacting physically with the other characters. The decision, as Tommy notes, stemmed from the themes she had been exploring in her work (“the ancestral touch”) and the necessity “to bring the other character into the room,” the one that hovers over all of the action.
Tommy’s decision, for me, proved extremely moving. Constantly, I was aware of Big Walter’s presence, always floating around the stage, watching the action unfold before his eyes. The physical embodiment of Big Walter added to scenes like those mentioned above. He added to the gravitas of the play’s focus on deferred dreams and white supremacy. He embodied the ancestral links not just between Big Walter, Walter Lee, and Travis but between the six generations of the Younger family that lived in America. He embodied the Middle Passage, the disconnect with Africa, the Diaspora that Benetha strives to know. He embodied all of these things and more.
The most powerful scene in Tommy’s production occurred at the end when this linking manifested itself onstage between Big Walter, Walter Lee, and Travis. During Walter Lee’s speech to Linder where he tells him that the Youngers will not sell the house they just put a down payment on, Big Walter stood over Walter Lee. Ruth tells Travis to go downstairs, but Lena interrupts and says, “Travis, you stay right here. And you make him understand what you’re doing, Walter Lee.” Walter Lee begins sheepishly, “like a small boy,” ready to take Linder’s deal. At this point, Walter Lee is lower than Linder, looking up at him.
Walter Lee continues, still like a boy, until he looks around the room and recognizes Travis and his family. Big Walter standing over Walter Lee, touched him on the shoulder, the only physical touch I recall from Big Walter, and he begins to stand some. Walter Lee continues by telling Linder that Big Walter almost beat a man to death from calling him a “a bad name,” then he calls Travis over to him. Travis stands before Walter Lee, facing Linder, and Walter Lee says, “This is my son, and he makes the sixth generation of our family in this country.” At this point, Big Walter, touching Walter Lee, stood behind Walter Lee and Travis stood in front, all facing Linder. Walter Lee finishes by telling Linder, “my father–he earned it for us brick by brick” and we will not sell the house.
While the scene is powerful enough, having Big Walter on stage, physically touching Walter Lee as he stands up and confronts Linder, brought added emotion to the scene. Big Walter’s example helps Walter Lee become a man in the face of white supremacy, and his thoughts and dreams for Travis echo Big Walter’s thoughts and dreams for Walter Lee. Even though he has always been a part of the play, the fact that Big Walter appeared on stage, throughout the entire performance, drove his importance home. Along with this, it highlighted the importance of family and the past within the play.
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