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SCENE/ACT SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
ACT I, SCENE 1: Friday morning
The first scene of the play is set in a cramped apartment in South Chicago, where the Younger family resides. It is early morning, and the house is slowly awakening to another day. The first family members to be seen are Walter Younger, and his wife, Ruth, who appears to be weary and unwell; as soon as they are up, they begin to argue about his preoccupation with plans for a new business venture. They are interrupted by their young son, Travis, who asks for some money to take to school.
After Walter goes into the living room, Beneatha, his sister, enters. Walter argues with her about her ambition to become a doctor. Finally, as Walter is leaving for his work as a chauffeur, Mama enters the room. Ruth asks Mama how she proposes to spend the life insurance money that she has received after the death of her husband; although Mama answers that she does not want to talk about money first thing in the morning, they do have a financial discussion. When Beneatha joins them, the talk turns to her love life, for she has two suitors. During the conversation, Mama slaps Beneatha for talking blasphemously about God, and Beneatha leaves the room. As Mama and Ruth talk about Walter and Beneatha, Ruth suddenly faints.
Although the Younger's home is small and worn in appearance, it is obvious that it has been decorated with pride. Now, however, doilies and covers are placed on the furniture to hide the bare spots, and chairs are moved over the bare spots in the carpet. It is easy to tell that the black family that lives here is not very well off. Ruth, Walter Younger's wife, looks almost as worn as the apartment. As soon as she wakes up, she and her husband start arguing about the costs associated with a liquor store that he wants to open as a business venture; he feels he will be able to get rich quick through the investment. Money, or the lack of it, will become a central theme in the play.
Big Walter Younger has recently died. The family is awaiting the arrival of his life insurance check. Everyone in the family is curious about it. Even little Travis asks whether the check is coming in the next few days. Like all of his relatives, he is concerned about money. He asks Ruth, his mother, for fifty cents to take to school. When she refuses to give it to him, Walter gives him even more than he had asked for. After Travis leaves for school, Walter asks Ruth to talk to Mama about using some of the insurance money on the liquor store he wants to open. Ruth, the more practical of the two, reminds her husband that the insurance money is not his and that he should not be making plans for its use. Walter is obviously frustrated that his wife does not agree with his dreams.
When Walter's sister, Beneatha, enters the room, he begins to argue with her about the insurance money, trying to convince her that none of it should be used on her education. The sister clearly tells him that it is up to Mama to spend the money however she desires.
Walter feels that Mama will give some of the money to Beneatha; therefore, he tries to tell Beneatha that she should not accept it, so more cash can go to him.
After Walter leaves, Mama enters and asks who has been slamming doors. She opens a window and brings in a feeble plant growing doggedly in a small pot. She says that the plant needs more sun to survive. The plant is really a symbol of the Youngers themselves. In their tiny tenement home, they cannot grow and thrive. At the end of the play, the audience will see Mama carrying this plant to the new house to get more sun.
In this opening scene, Mama comes across as an archetypal mother figure. She tells Beneatha to wear a robe so she will not catch a cold. She clearly loves her grandson, Travis, and covers up his mistakes and carelessness. She is the only one who notices that Ruth is not looking too well and warns her to eat more so she will not become as thin as Travis. She also makes it clear that she is a strong Christian. When Ruth tries to talk about her husband's business venture, Mama tells her it is un-christian to talk about money early in the morning.
Ruth comes across as an easily led person. Despite the argument that she has with her husband earlier in the day, once Walter leaves, she does exactly as he says. She tries to talk to Mama about the liquor store, but she is totally opposed to it. Mama feels that liquor is also un-christian. Ruth then kindly suggests that Mama use the money to go on a trip. Unlike Walter, Ruth and Beneatha think that since it is Mama's money, she should use it on herself.
Mama reveals that she wants to use some of the money for Beneatha's education and spend the rest on the purchase of a new home. She knows that these things would have made Big Walter happy. The idea of a new place also thrills Ruth; she has always called their present place a "rat house" and has wanted to leave. When Beneatha joins in the conversation, Mama criticizes her for flitting from one hobby to another. The talk then changes to a discussion of Beneatha's boyfriends. Mama likes the idea of Beneatha going out with George Murchison, for he is rich. Beneatha says that she does not like him enough to consider marrying him.
During the conversation, Mama also reprimands Beneatha for her slang talk, learned at college. Mama makes it clear that she does not approve of God's name being used in vain. The two of them then argue about the meaning of God. Mama is shocked to find that Beneatha does not feel that God is responsible for everything. Finally, Mama gets very angry and slaps Beneatha. She then makes her daughter repeat that God is still in their house. Their differences are largely due to their generation gap.
Before the end of the scene, Mama carefully checks the potted plant again. It seems to look a little better. It is much like Mama's children. Although Walter and Beneatha have not had a luxurious life, they have survived and are their own people. Mama returns to her conversation with Ruth. As they speak, Ruth faints even though she tries hard not to. Mama is surprised, for she has just asked Ruth to sing "No Ways Tired" in an effort to raise their spirits. As the scene closes, the audience is left to wonder why Ruth has fainted.