This curriculum unit was designed for a sociology class of inner city students from the eleventh and twelfth grades and of average to above average reading ability. While the unit was designed specifically for these students, it would work equally well in an English, drama, or social studies classroom and could be used for junior high school students as well. The estimated time for the unit is ten weeks. The five plays to be read, acted out, and studied are:
A Raisin in the Sun
The Blood Knot
Death of a
The Glass Menagerie
These plays are rich in themes for studying: family, pride, racism, brotherhood, isolation, illusion, self-delusion, cultural identity, personal identity, migration, and the success ethic.
These themes are central to every adult’s life, especially in the United States today. Even
The Blood Knot
, a play set in South Africa, affects Americans because of American corporate involvement in South Africa and because of the theme of brotherhood. High school is an especially appropriate time to introduce these issues and themes to students, for it is during adolescence that students seem naturally to become curious about them. These are the years when they begin to grapple with questions like identity and, if they are not members of the dominant group, cultural identity. Moreover their attitudes are not yet frozen; they are open to discussion with others whose opinions might differ, and they are willing to speculate. Besides introducing them to examples of fine literature, these plays give them a chance to deal with themes all thinking men and women must come to terms with.
So that the teacher might choose only one or two of the plays, I will discuss the plays one by one, present some questions I believe should come up in discussion, and then for each play, I will present specific lesson plans.
A Raisin in the Sun
by Lorraine Hansberry
A Raisin in the Sun
is essentially a play involving an extended family and its struggle over personal and racial pride. The three generations of Youngers live in a Chicago southside slum after World War II. The apparent conflict in the family is about how to spend a $10,000 insurance check from the labors of the deceased father.
The family has two highly volatile members. One is Walter Lee, who dreams of a life better than that of a chauffeur. He dreams of being a businessman, maybe even a mogul. At present he hopes to go into a liquor store partnership with two friends. He sees the money as his entry into a totally different world than the one in which he has been living. The other explosive force is his younger sister Beneatha, a college student who wants to become a doctor and who has a flirtation with her own African roots through her dating Joseph Asagai, an African native.
The central and strongest character is Mama, Lena Younger, who holds the family together and understands its past, present, and future. Mama’s enduring dream has been to own a home. Without consulting anyone, she puts a downpayment on a small house in a white neighborhood.
When Walter Lee learns the fate of the money, his spirits are dashed and he speaks bitterly about his future. He is even seemingly insensitive to his wife who has recently learned that she is pregnant and is considering an abortion. Mama shows her trust in Walter Lee by giving him $6,500 of the remaining money, half of which is intended to be banked for Beneatha’s education. Walter Lee, trusting his more “knowledgeable” business partner turns all the money over to him to “grease” some palms to enable them to get a liquor license more quickly. Naturally, the friend and money disappear.
Meanwhile whites in the new neighborhood have sent an agent to buy off the Youngers if they will give up the house. Almost yielding to the agent’s offer, Walter Lee finally achieves his manhood and pride by standing up to the agent in front of his young son Travis, his sister, his wife, and his mother. It is Mama who gives him the courage and strength to refuse the offer and to affirm his manhood.
The play allows students to discuss extended families, personal pride, racial pride, ambition, African roots, and dreams of upward mobility. These are the issues that teens, especially black ones, discuss informally among themselves. A play which yields structured discussions would sharpen their thinking on these issues. Such discussions will no doubt bring out controversy, which is healthy in a classroom.
Some Discussion Questions
1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of living in an extended family? Many students live in homes which are not traditional nuclear families and are not shy about discussing their family life.
2. Who do you think should have decided what to do with the $10,000? What would have advised if you had been a member of the Younger family?
3. Is Mama a tyrant? Yes? No? Give reasons and examples.
4. Why do you think Mama gives Walter Lee $6,500. What does it take to be a man?
5. Why do you think Beneatha is interested in Africa? Why do some other relatives make fun of this interest? Do you think Beneatha would be happy if she married Mr. Asagai and moved to Africa? Do you think the play gives a just picture of Africa?
6. How does George Murchison represent a different type of black from the Youngers? from Mr. Asagai?
7. How would you have acted toward the agent who came to “buy you off”? How would you have felt about moving into a neighborhood where your neighbors did not want you?
8. Why is Travis in the play?
Given the confines of time, the students will read parts of the play at home and act out certain scenes in the classroom. Since
is action-filled and has many good lines, it adapts itself well to acting in the classroom and requires a minimum of props. Some scenes which might be good for acting in the classroom would include the scene in which Water Lee expresses his dream to be more than a chauffeur, the scene in which Mama discovers that Walter Lee has lost the money, and the scene in which the agent confronts the Youngers. A good comic scene might be the one in which Beneatha tries to “explain” Africa to Mama.
Mama informs the family that soon a check in the amount of $10,000 will be arriving from the insurance company. She tells them they want to make the best use of the money.
Have students volunteer to be Walter Lee, Ruth, Beneatha, Travis, and Mama. Act out a conversation which might have occurred in the Younger family.
After Mama realizes how disappointed Walter Lee is about the downpayment on the house, she decided to trust the remainder of they money to him. Have the two sit near one another and discuss why she is giving him the $6,500 and what she thinks he ought to do with it.
After the agent leaves the apartment and the moving men begin to move out the furniture, Travis and Walter Lee talk about what has been happening.
Invite Lloyd Richards, the original director of the play to class to talk, he can be reached c/o Yale Repertory Theatre.
The Blood Knot
by Athol Fugard
By contrast to
The Blood Knot
is taut and tense with just two characters: Morris, who can pass for white, and his darker skinned half-brother Zachariah. It is set in a shack on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where the apartheid system holds sway. After a long absence Morris shows up on Zachariah’s doorsteps and they spend a year of quiet, lonely existence together.
In this dreary existence, devoid of other male and any female companionship, they are saving money to build a farm. To quiet Zach’s complaints about being womanless, Morris suggests a pen pal. One is chosen and a correspondence begun. When she includes a photograph and requests the same, they realize they have chosen her name from a white newspaper. At first, fear creeps in, but then they both enjoy the correspondence game even though Ethel has a policeman brother and there is always the danger that she might show up in Port Elizabeth.
Finally the pen pal does announce she will be in the area. Zach, who has done all the working and saving for the farm, insists that Morris use the money to buy appropriate gentleman’s clothes to impersonate him in a meeting with Ethel.
Ethel’s visit never materializes because she writes that she has become engaged. But in the meantime Morris and Zach play white-black games from childhood and adulthood. As they reminisce, Zach claims their black mother always gave Morris better toys, better everything. Morris does not deny it. They play other games in which whites humiliate blacks or force them to act in a subservient way. All their fantasy games focus on the nature of being white and black in South Africa: on power and impotence. The most powerful line is delivered when Morris shouts to Zach: “I arrest you in the name of God,” as if God had ordained the current racial relations. The power of the relationship between the two brothers makes these games work on stage. I think most students are imaginative enough to believe these games. In some classes, particularly if all the students are of the same race, students might act our or role-play some of these games.
The play is so powerful because the two men, though so different, are born of the same woman. They
brothers. This “bond between brothers” or bloodknot can be used to study apartheid in present day South Africa. With daily news coming from South Africa students are curious to know the history of the country, the present conditions, just what apartheid means, and how it can be ended. The play documents the antithesis of brotherhood, the stated ideal in most countries in the world. Some students may wish to discuss the ideal of brotherhood in America and the reality of racial conditions. On another level, the play might lead to a discussion of the bonds there are between brothers of any color and race.
Some discussion questions
1. Why do you think the author chose two brothers to illustrate apartheid?
2. Why do you think Zach accepts Morris when he returns?
3. When the brothers discover that Ethel is white, why do you think they continue the correspondence? Which brother seems more eager to continue the letters?
4. Why do you think Zach is willing to give up the money he has saved to buy the farm in order to clothe Morris to meet Ethel? What will Zach get out of it?
5. Why do the brothers play the racially humiliating games?