Saluting Black History Month: An ABC Movie Event ~ Sean Combs on Lorainne Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun Segue from Broadway to TV
by Ellis Nassour

    ABC is promoting the heck out of next Monday's much-anticipated telecast of Kenny Leon's production of the three-hour presentation of the new movie adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. It stars Sean Combs and the leads of the Tony and Drama Desk-nominated 2004 Broadway revival that not only brought in a new breed of theatergoers, as Oprah's The Color Purple has these last two seasons, but also broke box office records.

    Raisin became a passion project for executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan after they saw the revival that also starred Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald, both of whom won Tonys and DDs and Sanaa Lathan, who was Tony-nominated. The play, even in limited engagment, broke box office records.

    "However," reveals Meron, "we always wanted to do. Years before the Broadway revival, we tried to get a network interested. When we saw the revival with Sean and the extraordinary audiences he brought into the theater, it was the perfect opportunity."


    He reported that before he and Zadan could get the words out of their mouths at the meeting with Steve McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment, "he gave us a commitment. To his credit, it was that quick. We don't know another network president who would give away three hours of broadcast time for a black family drama written in 1959."

    Zadan says, "It just mattered that we made the movie and it got broadcast because we felt it was important to be seen by a new generation. Looking back at it, it was worth every moment. We're so proud of it."

    Their faith in the project is more than rewarded by the results achieved not only by director Kenny Leon, who directed the stage revival [receiving a DD nom], but also by the stellar performances of Rashad, McDonald, Lathan [who's quite the scene stealer] and last, but by no means least, Combs. Rashad is the film's anchor and anchor it she does. Her poignant and blistering performance will long be remembered. In fact, If this was a theatrical release it would surely have lots of Oscar buzz for picture and cast. As it's a teleplay, it should have lots of Emmy buzz come late summer.

    As excellent as the leads are, there are two notable supporting roles: David Oyelowo as Asagai, the student from Nigeria; and Sean Patrick Thomas as George, the sophisticated, wealthy college student, who are after Beneatha's hand. Oyelowo has a memorable moment [when Beneatha finally agrees to give him her phone number] that will have the ladies swooning and that will be the talk on Tuesday around the water coolers. Any guy who wants to impress a gal needs to memorize that moment.

    Though there's no shortage of dramatic moments for Rashad, she did have a light moment following Asagai's exit after his first visit to the apartment that she milks for all it's worth.

    If anyone wants to pick hairs, they're there; but it's a movie based on a play and you don't expect faithful period realism. Still, in its portrayal of racism in the late 50s and a family with dreams and aspirations, it get a high score. Seeing the film on a big screen without interruption certainly gave it more impact. Hopefully, ABC will be very careful in where and how the placement of commercials.

    ARITS is Hansberry's poignant story of a family struggling on Chicago's South Side in the 50s with hopes and dreams of movin' on up. Son Walter Lee especially wants to get a piece of the pie but is constantly deferred. Sister Beneatha has dreams of a better life, not necessarily in the U.S., as she has hopes of becoming a doctor.

    As the Youngers await the $10,000 life insurance policy of Walter Lee Younger, his widow Lena, portrayed by Rashad, has a dream, too - retiring from her job as a domestic and trading the family's tenement apartment for a deluxe home in the sky.

    Of course, not every family member shares that dream. Each has their own idea of how to use the newfound wealth. For one thing, Walter Lee Jr., a chauffeur, played by Combs, has plans to open a can't-miss business, which doesn't sit well with his mother. Needless to say, obstacles are thrown in their path and racism rears its ugly head and dreams are almost shattered. Almost.


    Many have wondered where the title came from and its significance to the story. Hansberry was a huge fan of the poet/novelist/playwright Langston Hughes, and found these lines memorable:

    "What happens to a dream deferred?
    Does it dry up
    Like a raisin in the sun?
    Or fester like a sore
    And then run?
    Does it stink like rotten meat?
    Or crust and sugar over
    Like a syrupy sweet?
    Maybe it just sags
    Like a heavy load.|
    Or does it explode?"
    - Harlem

    Hansberry's play was the first written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. It premiered in 1959, running 530 performances, starring Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ruby Dee [as Beneatha, a role that closely paralleled Hansberry's aspirations] and Louis Gossett Jr. Poitier. The play, Miss McNeil and director Lloyd Richards were Tony-nominated. The play was also honored with the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

    [Trivia: Though Poitier received great acclaim for his portrayal of Walter Lee, it wasn't all a bed of roses between he and Hansberry. He was heavily critical of her choice to have Lena Younger as the central focus of the play and felt his character should be stronger.]

    A film with the same cast followed in 1961, with the screenplay by Hansberry [Columbia Pictures rejected two earlier drafts as too controversial]. Miss McNeil and Poitier were nominated for Golden Globes. The film was also honored at Cannes.

    Combs, who's a co-producer on the film, said his first-time theater acting gig "was one of the most challenging things I'd ever done and it truly changed my life. To be able to tell my kids and grandkids that I did that! That's crazy! It's definitely one of my proudest things I've ever done."

    He says that the timing couldn't be better for ARITS. "This is not only Black History Month, but also a particularly historic time where we have a historic election and also the fortieth anniversary of Dr. King's death. We always see examples of racism trying to stick its head out, but I think America has said we're not going to have that anymore. This is an uplifting story and with all that's going on, the film will have an impact and touch people's hearts. They'll get the message."

    Going onstage, making his Broadway debut cold, was a daring leap for the hip hop artist known to millions as P. Diddy, but It didn't take long for him to fall in love with Walter Lee Younger Jr.'s character. "He had so much passion and many different colors and dimensions," says Combs. "You don't read scripts like that these days. There aren't an abundance of roles that look into the dimensions of a black man."

    He sees things changing for the better. "You don't see those gang-banging, stereotypical movies as much as you used to. African Americans are getting more power being executive producers. The work Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and Denzel Washington are doing is opening up doors for actors like me.

    "My acting coach told me that if I wanted to get serious as an actor," he continued, "Walter Lee was a dream role. I was like, there's no way I can do that. When I was offered the part, I was so thrilled that I jumped into doing it without knowing how tough starring on Broadway would be. But it was an experience I'll remember forever." He was to receive strong encouragement from Poitier, Ruby Dee and her late husband Ossie Davis.

    Being with Rashad and McDonald onstage boosted his confidence. "If you're playing basketball and want to get better, you don't play with scrubs. You play with guys that are great. All I could do was try to get better every day, and there were times I stood out. The hardest part was adjusting to the schedule. With eight shows a week, you don't have another life. And you're so worn out because it's such an emotional play. All I did was sleep and do the play, sleep and do the play."

    Anytime he got stressed out, he says he thought of how blessed he was to have the opportunity to play Broadway. "So many would love to be in my shoes," he says. "Hopefully, what I did will open more doors for others."


    First and foremost, Combs views himself as an entertainer. "The great entertainers did many things. They had businesses, they had albums and they acted. I like pushing the culture of hip hop forward so we can do other things that aren't typical - things that would raise our culture up."

    As much as he loves music, he has big plans. "I'm transitioning from music to acting. It's something I'm passionate about. It's something that you have to have to fall in love with it and be totally dedicated to. I always have to constantly be expressing myself. If I don't, I'd probably go crazy. Now I'm able to do that in other ways. Acting is a perfect vehicle for me to stay sane and to express myself in ways people don't expect."

    He says he wouldn't trade his stage experience for anything. "It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Who can start on Broadway, sell out a theatre week after week and then have it become the second highest grossing non-musical play in Broadway history?"

    But Combs has no immediate plans to return to the stage, though he states "I would love to come back to Broadway, but no one has submitted any scripts for me to consider."

    Combs bluntly notes, "I still have a lot more growing and learning to do. I want to continue working with great actors, but I'm proud of my progression from roles I've had in films to Broadway and now being able to help bring Raisin to TV, where it will be seen by millions."

    Playing Walter Lee Jr. onscreen was easier. "I had time to mature as an actor. On Broadway, I was kind of thrown out onto the stage. I was trying to find the character and never truly found him until I had time to mature and gain more confidence. By the time we began shooting the movie, I felt I'd become Walter Lee. I truly did my best to tell the truth in the film."

    The stakes were high, but doing the film gave Combs more of an adrenalin rush "because I knew how important it was to give something different than what was onstage. There was pressure and anxiety, but for three-and-a-half weeks in Toronto [where the movie was shot] the adrenalin stayed up."

    He explains how proud he's been at the various screenings to see how audiences have been moved by ARITS. "That's an experience I've never has as an artist." In the film, he acquits himself excellently and is far superior to when onstage. With ARITS being a potential ratings blockbuster, Combs should be showered with scripts.

    Combs noted that he drew on his childhood experiences growing up in Harlem and Mount Vernon, New York. "A lot of people think that because I've had a little bit of success I may not be able to relate. My father was killed when I was three and I grew up in a house with three women - my mother, my grandmother and my sister. Mom and my grandmother worked two jobs and still weren't able to take care of us. I remember the look on my mother's face when I'd ask for things and she couldn't afford it."

    He recalled the stress his family went through when he was going to Howard University and he was having dreams of being in the music industry. "It all related to Walter Lee's dream. I feel I was destined to play this role."

    Not everyone agreed. "A lot of people looked at me like I was crazy - just like, in the play how everyone looks at Walter Lee. They forgot I've had success in the music field and run several companies successfully [including his very popular international Sean John clothing line]. I come from the world of hip hop and most of the artists are known for the bling bling and Champagne. But, in my regard, that was blown way out of proportion because most of the time I was just in my office working or in the studio."

    Combs knows about some of the anxiety that exists when you're born into conditions where your life is predestined for failure. "When you're pursuing a dream and constantly hitting obstacles, you can't give up. You have to keep that passion and motivation. The fact that I couldn't stop was something I was able to tap into for the movie from my life."


    What touched him about Hansberry's writing "was her understanding of each character's motivation. I haven't read another script where every single word from beginning to end means something or could relate to something. She was a genius. That's what makes this work so timeless."

    He pointed to Shakespeare's works as an example. "When people ask why do his plays over and over, it's important that the stories live on, just like Romeo and Juliet lives on. People keep finding relevance."

    Broadway was like a warm up game for Combs, Rashad, McDonald and Lathan, he says; and while shooting the film he found himself, once again, in incredible company. "Working with these actors makes you feel vulnerable. They're not acting. They're living it. They're so real, you can't but help tell the truth when you're looking into their eyes. It's important when you're speaking lines with actors that you listen and they listen to you. You're having a conversation and speaking the truth. It becomes reality.

    "I couldn't help but get better," he adds, "You can't help but nail the scene because they're so believable. I appreciated their years of experience. I was able to ask questions and, if I needed help in a scene, even when we were rehearsing, they would still dig deep. It wasn't any less."

    Meron and Zadan became big fans of Combs. "Sean's probably the hardest working person we've worked with on every level," says Meron. "No matter how many takes, he was tireless. He's not someone who likes to fail and he works hard to make sure he doesn't. Sean knew he had a lot more to prove and he strived to prove he was worthy. His commitment and work ethic was such that I stood in awe of him. And what energy!"

    "Sean's very demanding," relates Zadan, "and he demands as much of himself as he does of his collaborators. He was extremely serious about every aspect of the film and held everyone to a very high level. He was always questioning, always making sure that the movie can be the best it can be, that we had the best people working on it - the best adaptor [Paris Qualles, who wrote the critically-acclaimed and Emmy-nominated Tuskeegee Airmen and The Rosa Parks Story], designers, the best director of photography [Emmy-nominated Ivan Strasberg, who's worked steadily in film and TV since the 70s]."

    Notes Meron, "Sean had the most to gain and the most to lose. He was aware of that every minute." Zadan reports that the thing he and Meron admired most was Combs' ability to challenge himself up to the level of Rashad and McDonald.


    Meron says it was mesmerizing "to watch Phylicia Rashad brilliantly inhabit the role of Lena Younger. Audiences here she's capable of great things, but for the masses who only know her from The Cosby Show there are going to be some surprises. She can hold her own with any great dramatic actress."

    Combs sings the praises of director Leon, who has opened the play up in many ways so that it doesn't feel like a stage play. "Kenny's a genius. He truly knows how to work with actors. Every director is different. There aren't a lot out there who know to help an actor. Kenny can really bring out the best in you. On Broadway and in the film, he made me feel comfortable and allowed me to break the rules. He didn't mind as long as I did things to protect the role, to make audiences feel the character."

    Leon, Meron and Zadan decided that every scene in the play that worked best outside would be taken outside. "Our challenge was to make it into a movie," explains Zadan, "and not have audiences feel they're in an apartment. We didn't want a filmed a play. So we're on the street, on the bus, in other houses, in the bar. We're all over the city; and, when we need to be, we're in the apartment." There's a particularly effective scene in a bar where Walter has gone to commiserate and Lena comes to bring him home.

    The team made a conscious choice to achieve realism by shooting not in digital or B&W 35mm but in Super 16, which gives ARITS a slightly grainy look. "We also decided to use a tremendous amount of handheld and steady-cam," Zadan adds, "so that there'd be a voyeuristic feel, like you're a fly on the wall. You're in those rooms and wherever these people are and we wanted to create the sense that you're right there with them experiencing this story."

    The cinematography has amazing depth, with the grainy look hardly noticeable. There are numerous close-ups that bring the drama full force; and the steady-cam work brings a wonderful intimacy to certain scenes.

    Though the producers respect the original film, says Meron, "We wanted to reintroduce the voice of Lorraine Hansberry, who's someone we haven't talked enough about. She should be a role model. She was only twenty-seven when A Raisin in the Sun opened, which makes it all the more remarkable considering the time. Sadly, she passed away at thirty-four in 1965. Hers was a voice that only blazed bright for a moment."

    Born on Chicago's South Side, the playwright was the youngest of four children of a real estate broker. When the family moved to a "better" area near the University of Chicago, they faced fierce racial discrimination from, as Hansberry described it, "a hellishly hostile white neighborhood." Her father battled against a binding covenant that, in essence, prohibited blacks from buying homes in the area. The case led to the landmark Supreme Court case of Hansberry v. Lee and the covenant was struck down; still, fierce resistance to the family's presence continued. Mr. Hansberry even considered relocating the family to Mexico to escape racism.


    In the early 50s, Hansberry, after college in Wisconsin and studying art in Mexico, became a freelance writer for Freedom magazine [published by Paul Robeson] in New York and worked odd jobs to make ends meet. She was quite the activist. While picketing to protest the exclusion of black athletes at NYU, she met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish literature student and songwriter. Considering Hansberry's lifestyle choices, it came as surprise to intimated when the couple married. Nemiroff had a hit song, which gave Hansberry to devote herself to writing full time.

    The original A Raisin in the Sun was produced on Broadway by Philip Rose and Nemiroff. The couple had a daughter, separated and were divorced in 1964. Three months before her death from cancer, Hansberry saw a second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, about a Greenwich Village political activist seeking social reforms, arrive on Broadway for 101 performances. It closed the night she died. Hansberry had been working on a novel and three plays. A third work, Les Blancs, had a short run in late 1970.

    Nemiroff adapted much of Hansberry's unpublished work [including a teleplay commissioned by NBC about slavery] into the hugely successful 1968 Off Broadway play To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which appeared in book form. Hansberry's friend, singer Nina Simone, no stranger to controversy herself, had a hit with a song titled after the play.

    A musical version of ARITS, simply called Raisin, by Judd Woldin and Robert Brittan, opened in 1973, winning the Tony for Best Musical. Like the original play, It was produced by Nemiroff, who co-adapted the Tony-nominated book with Charlotte Zaltzberg. The stars were Virginia Capers, Joe Morton [as Walter Lee], Ernestine Jackson and Ralph Carter, all nominated with Miss Capers winning as Best Actress.

    Debbie Allen, sister to Miss Rashad, later to become a choreographer and Tony-nominated and DD-winning actress, in only her second Broadway role, played Beneatha. Allen is directing the black version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which opens next month.

    Combs reveals that when decided to take the leap to Broadway for the ARITS revival, he received strong moral support from Sidney Poitier. "I immediately reached out to Sidney. I wanted to tell him and get his thoughts. He was very excited and supportive. He literally passed me the baton, giving me confidence, support and inspiration."

    He also reports that Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis took him under their wing. "They felt it was important to expose A Raisin in the Sun to a new generation. The day after the first preview on Broadway, I had like an acting session with Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis. It wasn't planned. They just came and had some notes on how I could get better. Just to get those arms wrapped around me was just incredible."

    Co-producing ARITS is Sony Pictures Television with John Eckert, Leon and Carl Rumbaugh, Susan Batson and David Binder from the Broadway revival. Meron and Zadan produced the The Bucket List, currently in theatres, the film version of Hairspray, executive-produced the Oscar winning film of Chicago, the acclaimed Life with Judy Garland and the Emmy-winning Gypsy, which starred Bette Midler. Their films have won six Academy Awards, five Golden Globes and 11 Emmy Awards [among 66 nominations].

    Monday, February 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Item Link

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

    The last five columns written by Ellis Nassour:

    07/02/2010: Summer in the City: Fireworks on the Hudson Launch a Season with Plenty to Do and See

    06/13/2010: The 64th Annual Tony Awards Celebrating Broadway Achievement

    06/10/2010: Tony Honoree Marian Seldes: Grand Duse of the American Theater

    06/08/2010: Starry, Starry Nights [Hopefully] with the Bard; Broadway by the Year Celebrates 10th Anniversary; Old Flames Reignite [Onstage]; Summer in and Out of the City; Stars Rally for Dancers; Cast CDs and Re-releases; New to DVD

    05/21/2010: Patti LuPone Hosts Sunday's Drama Desk Awards; A Starry, Starry Season; Tovah Feldshuh, Sherman Brothers Honored; Broadway By the Year Season Finale

    For a listing of all features written by Ellis, click here.