March 1, 2008

Revisiting "A Raisin in the Sun"

When Lorraine Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun, the classic 1959 play that was the first drama by a black playwright to open on Broadway, she intended the main character to be Walter Lee Younger, a frustrated Chicago chauffeur who shares a small tenement apartment with his wife, small son, widowed mother and college student sister. Having Sidney Poitier, who had just starred in the movie "The Defiant Ones," play the role only seemed to confirm that A Raisin in the Sun would be Walter Lee’s show. But Claudia McNeil, the actress who played the mother Lena, had different ideas about which character should be dominant and her compelling performance tilted the balance of power to the point that nearly a quarter century later, George C. Wolfe would parody A Raisin in the Sun as "The Last Mama-On-the-Couch Play" in his first big hit The Colored Museum, an audacious send-up of African-American culture.

I know all of this because I once spent a lovely morning with Philip Rose, the producer of the landmark 1959 production, as he reminisced about putting the show together. And I thought about all of it this week because in the most recent production of A Raisin in the Sun, which aired as a three-hour special on ABC earlier this week, the power is back in Walter Lee’s hands. Literally. In the original production, Lena, holding a beloved and symbolic plant, was the last person to leave the stage before the curtain fell. But in the TV movie, it’s Walter Lee who gets the plant and the last close-up. This Walter Lee is played by the
hip-hop impresario Sean Combs, who is also known as P. Diddy. Combs, shown above with Phylicia Rashad as Lena, also starred in the 2004 Broadway revival. He had never acted onstage before and had only done a few small roles in movies but he gave it his all, hiring a private acting coach and even building a copy of the set in his living room so that he could rehearse at home. His determination paid off: he didn’t embarrass himself, the 10-week run was sold-out, and both Rashad and Audra McDonald as Walter Lee’s wife Ruth won Tonys for their performances. They’re in the TV movie too, as is Sanaa Lathan who plays the sister, Beneatha.

The plot of A Raisin in the Sun pivots around a $10,000 insurance check from the estate of the recently deceased patriarch of the family and the dreams that each family member has for the money—Walter Lee wants to invest in a liquor store, Beneatha wants to go to medical school, Lena wants a more comfortable home for them all. But the play also deals with all the tensions—integration, feminism, African independence, racial pride—that were roiling in the black community as well as the wider society at the time. Hansberry was just 28 when her play opened and energized by the changes that were in the air (her own family had integrated a Chicago neighborhood and her father had waged a battle against efforts to keep other blacks out of the area that eventually resulted in a landmark Supreme Court decision) and she wanted to present an angrier work but toned it down to get the show produced on Broadway. She tried to restore the rawness in the script for the 1961 film version of the play but was only partly successful. It wasn’t until eight years after Hansberry’s premature death from pancreatic cancer at just 34, that Raisin, the 1973 musical based on the play, was able to express more of the militancy she wanted to show.

Strangely, the script for the new TV movie, written by Paris Qualles, has muted the anger again. Maybe Qualles and director Kenny Leon felt that such emotions are out of place at a time when it is looking more and more possible that a black man may move into the White House. The movie they’ve made is still affecting and, in case you missed it, the DVD is due out in May. But in the meantime, do yourself a real favor and get the 1961 movie (click here to see an excerpt). Hansberry named her play after the Langston Hughes poem that asks, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" Or, the final line wonders, "does it explode?" This powerhouse production shows why the latter almost happened.


Esther said...

Wow, that must have been fascinating, to hear from the original producer.

I really enjoyed this, especially the female performances. They each created such memorable, compelling characters. I'd never even heard of Audra McDonald until I saw her last summer in "110 in the Shade," and now I just think she's awesome. Sean Combs, I don't know, he just seemed a little too contemporary, not filled with as much barely concealed inner rage. I saw the 1961 movie years ago, and there's nothing like Sidney Poitier's performance. But I really wish I'd had a chance to see this on stage!

strong boy said...

I crazy about theater and musical too! I'm from korea

and also my dream is musicals directors

Nice to meet you!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Esther, it's always good to hear from you.

And Strong Boy, thanks so much for reading and commenting all the way from Korea. I hope you will continue to check out the blog and that your dreams come true.