I went to a play yesterday morning for a school field trip.
I was excited to see a play that I had read and forgotten from a long time ago.
High school perhaps? Maybe I saw the movie in class.
Sidney Poitier was in it.
A Raisin in the Sun
I remembered that it was intense.
I really had no idea what I was in for.
No clue that I would be running for a copy of the play as soon as it finished in order to read all of Mama’s lines again.
Because I missed a few here and there, especially during the third act.
That would be the act during which I was sobbing.
I feel the need for a small disclaimer regarding both the length and content of this post.
As to the length, it is long because it is for me. These are the lines and thoughts I need recorded so I can come back to them. Mama, it won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t read them all.
Also, if you are hoping to see the play without really knowing the story, then you should probably stop reading now.
And for the content, let me say that I focused mostly on Mama and on her relationship with her children.
This is not to say that I could not also write volumes on the other characters. They are beautifully wrought by the hand of Lorraine Hansberry. I am in awe of her character development, her ear for dialogue and her ability to transport us to 1950s Southside Chicago.
There is also much to be said about issues of race in this play. That the characters are living their lives amidst the backdrop of institutional and individual racism could go without saying. But, being white, I want to speak it. I clutched at my heart when the only white character in the play came on the scene. I knew he was not bringing kindness from the minute he opened his mouth. He speaks for a whole world of people like him. He speaks for many people even today, though they speak it differently.
The fact that I have lived my life largely immune to these issues is a truth that I have been coming into for sometime. It is the backdrop of why we do what we do at our church. Honestly, it is probably why I wanted to see this play in the first place.
And I will remember the play for its bravery toward issues of race.
But I will mostly remember it for Mama.
So moved was I by Lena Young, played brilliantly by Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, that I wanted to come home and soak up her character.
Then maybe I could have just a little of her strength, a portion of her courage.
A mustard seed’s worth of her faith.
In one day of seeing this performance and re-reading Lorraine Hansberry’s dialogue, here are the three lessons I want to remember.
Lesson 1. To trust.
Not because people look trustworthy, but because when you trust someone, he or she is more likely to become worthy of that trust.
Lena and her husband have loved and sacrificed for their children. They moved north to forge a better life, one free of the fear of being lynched. Lena is a strong matriarch, a pillar of faith and conviction upon which the whole family can stand. She is determined and forceful, and even meddlesome, which is why it is so moving that she firmly decides to hand over the leadership of her family to her son, Walter. This is acted out in the handing over of the insurance money from her husband’s death to Walter.
He looks at her surprised and asks in bewilderment if she trusts him this much.
She replies that she has always trusted him.
What is so remarkable about this sacrifice to me is that when Lena gives Walter the money, she does not have any assurance that he will do right with it. In fact, one might could argue that she knows that he will not. But she recognizes this point in Walter’s life when for the sake of his character as a man, she needs to trust him. She needs to hand over the reigns.
So many stories contain this theme, where someone risks everything on one they love and hope they will come through for them. In the stories with happy (Hollywood) endings, the person being trusted with the opportunity usually comes through in a miraculous way. The world falls into place for them because someone believed in them.
Walter simply does not live in the kind of world where everything falls into place for him. Whether he fails because of the world that has been handed to him or because of his own foolishness isn’t really debatable in a climate that is so unkind to a black man. (And whether or not this climate has really changed is a conversation worth having.)
But Lena knows all those things about the world. She has seen hardship that I cannot even imagine, but she makes a choice to trust. And that is the lesson I want to learn from her. To choose to trust. Not because it looks like it’s going to work out, or because it sounds like it is a good idea, but because the children in my home, especially the boys, will not ever grow up if someone doesn’t trust them.
Here are her words…her gracious, kind and humble words to her son:
Listen to me, now. I say I have been wrong, son. That I been doing to you what the rest of the world been doing to you. What you ain’t never understood is that I ain’t got nothing, don’t own nothing, ain’t never really wanted nothing that wasn’t for you. There ain’t nothing as precious to me…There ain’t nothing worth holding on to, money, dreams , nothing else–if it means–if it means it’s going to destroy my boy.
It ain’t much, but it’s all I got in the world and I’m putting it in your hands. I’m telling you to be the head of this family from now on like you supposed to be.
Lesson 2. To pray.
To cry out to God for strength in dark moments instead of lashing out at my family.
So, of course. You know it’s coming. Walter gets taken and loses the money. What you don’t know is coming is how his family will respond. The stage is certainly set for despair.
I sometimes wonder how I am going to respond one day when my kids fail big.
The fact that I come completely unglued for smaller day to day infractions is probably not a good sign for what I will do when, for example, I get a call from the police.
Lena is devastated when she realizes what Walter has done. She is broken and sad and angry. She’s not perfect, and she falters. She runs at him in a rage.
But as the lights dimmed at the end of Act II, I held my breath to watch Lena with her family gathered under her on the floor, her broken son, angry daughter and defeated daughter-in-law. Slowly, she held her hand to the sky and cried out,
Oh, God. Look down here–and show me the strength.
This was not the first time she had prayed one of these short, but powerful prayers during the play. When the family receives a visit from the white Welcoming Committee that is anything but welcoming, she says Lord, protect us.
One of the most powerful early moments in the play was Lena’s response to her daughter Beneatha’s doubting God’s existence. She is coming into her own understanding of the world around her and she questions God’s hand in front of her Mama. Mama slaps her face when she states that there is no God. It’s one of those things that young people always say in order to test the faith of their parents. To get a rise out of their believing parents. And usually, it works.
Unapologetic, Lena says to her daughter,
Now–you say after me, in my mother’s house there is still God.
She waits until Beneatha acknowledges this truth.
I point out all of this, not because I am condoning slapping insolent children, but because if there were not these clues throughout the play about Mama’s strong faith in God, one might overlook her prayer in her son’s dark hour as just a crying out, an expletive of sorts.
I believe it was an intentional crying out to God. And I want to be the kind of woman who looks to the heavens when I am desperate instead of unleashing wrath on my family.
Lesson 3. To love
To love no matter what, without exception. Even more, to never be found guilty of withholding love.
So Act III opens on a family that has largely given up. Anger, bitterness, defeat. So sad.
In my seat, I wondered how many days I was going to be sad after I left the theater.
But then everyone surprised me.
How many times have I heard that we don’t have to let our circumstances destroy us but we can choose to have hope, faith and love no matter what our circumstances are?
So why was I surprised when the family drew back together below the umbrella of grace Lena holds up with her love?
Because I am guilty of believing the lie that Satan keeps on telling us? It is the lie Beneatha and Walter had begun to believe, that God is not good. That He does not give good gifts to His children.
Walter shows that he has given up by preparing to sink to taking the offers of the Welcoming Committee of money in exchange for not moving to their neighborhood.
And Beneatha shows it by stating of her brother that he is not a man.
He is no brother of mine.
With this declaration of Beneatha’s, the stage is set for Lena to show me what it truly means to be a mother.
This is the scene I will hold in my heart my whole life:
Mama: You feeling like you better than he is today? Yes? What you tell him a minute ago? That he wasn’t a man? Yes? You give him up for me? You done wrote his epitaph too–like the rest of the world? Well, who give you the privilege?
Beneatha: Be on my side for once! You saw what he just did, Mama? You saw him–down on his knees. Wasn’t it you who taught me to despise any man who would do that?
Mama: Yes–I taught you that. Me and your daddy. But I thought I taught you something else too…I thought I taught you to love him.
Beneatha: Love him? There’s nothing left to love.
Mama: There’s always something left to love.
And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing.
Have you cried for that boy today?
I don’t mean for yourself and the family because we lost the money.
I mean for him: what he been through and what it done to him.
Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most?
When they done good and made things easy for everybody?
Well then, you ain’t through learning–because that ain’t the time at all.
It’s when he’s at his lowest and he can’t believe in himself because the world’s whipped him so!
When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right.
You make sure that you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.
I believe that Mama could have looked up at me in my balcony seat and said with as much certainty as she did to Beneatha and for many more reasons,
You ain’t through learning.