Five people across three generations live crammed into a tiny two-bedroom apartment. It's the 1950s, and the Younger family feels stuck in Chicago’s racially segregated South Side. Squalid, cramped conditions choke their dreams.
The family patriarch, Walter Younger, Sr., has died, and his family breathlessly awaits a $10,000 life insurance check. Each family member sees the money as a ticket to their dreams. His widow Lena, or “Mama,” wants to buy a house; their son Walter Lee wants to open a liquor store; their daughter Beneatha wants to go to medical school. Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth, is torn, but she ultimately wants the best for her family, especially their ten- year-old son Travis. Tensions escalate over how to spend the money.
When Mama makes a down payment on a house, Walter Lee feels betrayed. He skips work at his chauffeur job to wander and drink, bitterly disappointed. Ruth finds herself pregnant at a time when her family is on the verge of collapse, so she considers having an abortion. Mama, seeing her son in pain, decides to give him the remainder of the money—pronouncing him head of the household. She gives him $6500, asking him to put $3000 aside for Beneatha’s medical school education and use the rest to fund his ventures. Empowered by his mother’s trust, Walter Lee tells Travis to dream big for his future.
Meanwhile, Beneatha is dating two young men: Joseph Asagai, a visiting student from Nigeria, and George Murchison, who comes from a wealthy African American family. George embraces assimilation into a predominately white society because he sees that as the road to the American Dream. Asagai, on the other hand, encourages Beneatha’s growing interest in her African heritage; Beneatha explores her identity by dancing in Nigerian dress and not straightening her hair, wearing it in a natural afro.
As the family prepares to move, they receive a surprise visitor. Mama chose the best house available for the least money. Because of racist housing policies, an all-white neighborhood offered the best value, but not the greatest welcome. Karl Lindner, one of their new neighbors, arrives as a representative of the “Clybourne Park Improvement Association” to offer to buy the house back from the Youngers; the white residents of Clybourne Park do not want to live alongside a Black family, and they’re willing to pay to keep them out. The Youngers proudly refuse the bribe.
On moving day, another surprise visitor arrives: Walter Lee’s business partner Bobo confesses that that their associate Willy Harris has swindled them both. He ran away with all their money—including what Walter was supposed to have set aside for Beneatha’s education. The family is shocked at the loss and disappointed by Walter Lee’s poor judgment. Beneatha questions her dream of becoming a doctor: Walter Lee’s mistake not only squandered her school fund but also diminished her faith in helping people. Asagai suggests she revise her dream and return to Nigeria with him to practice medicine and spark anti-colonial revolution.
Mama decides to cancel their move and stay in the apartment, since now they may not be able to afford the monthly mortgage payments. But Walter Lee has another idea. He invites Karl Lindner back, planning to beg for the white neighbors’ offer by enacting a humiliating minstrel-like stereotype of black subservience and desperation.
But when Mr. Lindner arrives, Walter Lee changes his mind. He summons his dignity, refuses the money, and resolves that the family will move into their new home. As the moving men cart boxes, Mama feels proud of her son for finally coming into his own. She lingers in the apartment, looking back on its memories; at the last minute, she grabs the potted plant
that she has been carefully tending and painstakingly keeping alive in their tenement’s one window. She carries this symbol of both hope and adversity into their new home, a home which threatens unwelcoming, racist neighbors but promises a garden.
- Molly FitzMaurice