STAGE TO SCREENS: "Raisin in the Sun"; "Company" TV Director Price; Plus Metcalf and Wendt

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: "Raisin in the Sun"; "Company" TV Director Price; Plus Metcalf and Wendt
 
This month we talk to the creators of the new film version of "A Raisin in the Sun," plus Lonny Price (director of TV's "Company") and Broadway's Laurie Metcalf and George Wendt.
Sean Combs and Audra McDonald star in
Sean Combs and Audra McDonald star in "A Raisin in the Sun" Photo by ABC

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A Raisin in the Sun premiered at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, March 11, 1959, making Lorraine Hansberry (1930-65) the first African-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway. It also introduced Broadway's first African-American director, Lloyd Richards. The drama received four Tony nominations, and ran 530 performances. The stars were Sidney Poitier (as Walter Lee Younger), Claudia McNeil (Lena), Ruby Dee (Ruth), and Diana Sands (Beneatha) — all of whom appeared in the 1961 film.

Raisin, a 1973 musical based on the play, featured Joe Morton, Virginia Capers, Ernestine Jackson, and Deborah (now Debbie) Allen. Nominated for nine Tonys, it won two: Best Musical and Best Actress (Capers), and ran for 847 performances. A 1989 TV adaptation starred Danny Glover.

Directed by Kenny Leon (Broadway debut), the 2004 revival, received four Tony nominations and won two. It starred Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad (Best Actress), Audra McDonald (Best Featured Actress), and Sanaa Lathan — who reprise their roles, under Leon's direction, for the superb new TV movie (Feb. 25, ABC, 8 PM ET). Hansberry's title comes from a Langston Hughes poem, "Harlem": "What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ Like a raisin in the sun?..."

* "I couldn't use the Langston Hughes poem on Broadway," says director Kenny Leon, "so it's great having Morgan Freeman speak it in the voiceover, as the film begins." Regarding his first time behind the camera, he states, "I now consider myself a film and stage director."

Leon has a history with Hansberry's drama. "I've played Walter Lee, and have directed four or five productions [in regional theatre]. The most important thing was to open the play up for a new generation — to make it cinematic. I wanted to get inside the souls of the people; you can't do that on the stage."

Continues Leon, "In the film, there's a sexual tension between Beneatha [Sanaa Lathan] and Joseph Asagai [David Oyelowo]. I'd always wanted that." Plus, he's pleased that "Oyelowo's dad is Yoruba [from Africa], because Asagai is Yoruba." Leon cast John Stamos against type as the spokesman for the white community where Lena has purchased a house. "I wanted a good-looking guy, around Walter Lee's age. That character is thought of as a racist, and racists don't look any particular way. John does a great job."

Leon's delighted with all the actors. "Working with Audra McDonald is the greatest thing in the world for a director." He praises Phylicia Rashad, whom he's directed five times on the stage. ("You should see her Medea!") According to Leon, "The camera allows Diddy [Sean Combs] to be so honest, so in touch with his heart — instead of having to hit the back wall of a theatre. A lot of people will be shocked.

"Together, we tell a story [set in 1950s Chicago] that, I think, is a great tribute to Lorraine Hansberry. Paris Qualles did an incredible job of opening it up, and also honoring Lorraine's poetry."

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Observes screenwriter Paris Qualles, "In some cases, writers hired to do an adaptation feel they have to change [the work]. You don't do that if you can't improve it. There wasn't much I could do to improve Lorraine Hansberry's words. I have a Master's in Theatre, and did her plays in school; my favorite is Les Blancs. She's stood the test of time. She provided such vivid, well-drawn characters that it was just a matter of helping it along, massaging it — and not screwing it up."

Qualles (KWAL-less) believes, "Because of his stage experience, Kenny had great instincts [in filmmaking]. There had been varying opinions of Sean's work [on Broadway]. Lorraine never intended the play to be Walter's; Mama [Lena] was the central character. But Sidney Poitier is such a powerful, dynamic actor that he made Walter larger than life. I like to say that he hijacked the play.

"Very slightly, very subtly, I skewed the piece back to Mama, and even to Ruth — Audra never gives a bad performance — in order to balance it. That took some of the weight off Sean, which made him stronger.

"Whereas Sidney mesmerized, Sean has a quiet intensity. Sean doesn't have Sidney's experience, but he has a life experience that he was able to bring to this. What impressed everyone was how well Sean plays off the energy of the cast. When things get hot and heavy with Ruth, or with Mama, is really when Sean's at his best."

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Producer Neil Meron says, "Ultimately, it was about getting Sean to commit, which took two years [after Broadway]. And we had to deal with the women's schedules; they're always working. I think the network thought: This will never happen."

Producer Craig Zadan adds, "Neil and I never thought that. Finally, we coordinated everybody's schedule. We really wanted to work with Paris Qualles; his screenplay for 'The Tuskegee Airmen' [HBO, 1995] was wonderful. His challenge was to move Raisin out of the realm of a play that takes place in an apartment, and to maintain the poetry of Lorraine Hansberry. We shot in Super 16. It gives a less glossy, more realistic, look. The camera technique that we utilized brought out an intimacy that you usually don't get."

Meron: "Film magnifies what's good, and it's a brilliant cast. Audra is a goddess! She and Phylicia both won Tonys [for the revival], and Sanaa was nominated. Kenny's direction in calibrating their performances to the medium is just perfect. We brought our DP [director of photography] in early to talk to Kenny about how they wanted to shoot the film. That was really the key to everything. We filmed for about 24-25 days at the end of 2006 in Toronto."

Zadan: "We were in Toronto for 'Hairspray.' The last week of shooting coincided with the rehearsals [for 'Raisin']. When you have the right cast, director, cinematographer, and screenwriter — as we had with 'A Raisin in the Sun' — something magical happens."

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Phylicia Rashad describes preserving on film the role that made her the first African-American woman to win a Tony Award as Best Actress as "joyful!"

She says, "Kenny was such a good director. The fact that we had played three months [on Broadway] was a great help. When we arrived [on the set], we knew who we were, and what the story was."

Did she research the part of Lena? "I did — without knowing it. I'd played Aunt Ester [her favorite role] in August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean [in L.A., prior to Raisin, and later on Broadway]. Without realizing it, Aunt Ester informed me about Lena.

"That play takes place in 1904, the year that Lena was born. She would have known people who had been in bondage. Lena says, 'In my time, we were worried about how to get to the North, without being lynched.' That's all she says [on that subject], but when you have an understanding of what that means, it's enough. Lena's children don't understand it, because they grew up in Chicago, where things were not ideal, but different."

Mention of Paris Qualles' remark (that he "skewed the piece back to Mama, and even to Ruth") surprises Rashad: "Have you seen the movie!?" Does she have a favorite scene as Lena? "I like the tender times, when she tells [grandson] Travis [Justin Martin] about the house [she's bought], and when they visit her house."

Prior to the revival, had she worked with Audra McDonald? "No. She was a beauty that I had admired from not-too-far a distance. She's a phenomenal talent. Oh, my word! Did you see her in 110 in the Shade? I saw her four times," declares Rashad. "I think she's very special."

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The "very special" four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald gets to recreate a stage role on film for the first time. She found the experience exciting. "Instead of using your imagination, you see where Ruth goes, where she's been," McDonald says. "It made the emotional connection deeper. When Ruth comes back to the apartment, and talks about having gone to see an abortionist, you've seen it, you've been there."

How does McDonald perceive her character? "Ruth is someone who's deeply religious, deeply devoted to her family. She's very old-fashioned, a lot like me."

What's her take on Paris Qualles saying that he "skewed the piece" back to Mama and Ruth? "If there is a main character, I think that it's the family. You identify with each one, and you're rooting for all of them."

McDonald observes, "The great thing [about the film] is that the actors and director did [the story] before. We had a rapport." Having already worked with producers Zadan and Meron — she was Grace Farrell, Daddy Warbucks' secretary, in "Annie" (1999), directed by Rob Marshall — McDonald notes, "It was family all around."

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Upcoming: Kenny Leon plans to direct a Broadway production of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and is artistic director of the Kennedy Center's festival, August Wilson's 20th Century, a presentation of all of the late playwright's works. Paris Qualles has "some projects waiting until the writers' strike ends." Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are preparing a new movie of "Peter Pan" for ABC. Phylicia Rashad is playing Big Mama in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway (opening March 6).

Audra McDonald tells me that she's "getting ready to do a hundred-million concerts, all over the place. Plus, a little TV show." If the WGA reaches a settlement with producers, she starts filming ABC-TV's "Private Practice" in March. More immediate, though, is daughter Zoe's seventh birthday, on Valentine's Day. Explains Mom, "She wants a Pokemon-Lion King-Japanese theme-Little Mermaid birthday party. I don't know how I'm going to get all that on a cake. [Laughs]"

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Lonny Price
photo by Aubrey Reuben

"Phone rings, door chimes, in comes..." (Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's musical) "Company" — on New York Thirteen/WNET's "Great Performances" (Feb. 20, 9 PM ET), and nationwide on PBS (check local listings). Lonny Price directed for television, but unlike his previous PBS-TV assignments — "Sweeney Todd" (for which he shared a 2001 Emmy), "Candide," and "Passion" — Price had never directed a stage version of Company. "I had to learn it very quickly and capture its spirit."

Raul Esparza reprises his starring role from the Tony-winning Broadway revival, taped June 30, 2007 (matinee and evening), a day before closing.

"It was a question of studying [John Doyle's] staging, how many cameras [were needed], and where to put them. We used 10: four in the back and center, two on the side, two roving, a jib [which swoops], and an unmanned locked-down camera, placed against the back wall [for audience shots]. For TV, it's much more detailed. I wrote 1500 camera shots, and cover shots.

"When I was a kid, I saw the original Company. My parents called their ticket broker, trying to get me tickets for Applause, which looked glamorous. The broker said, 'We can't get those, but Company opened this week, and that's supposed to be good for kids.' [Laughs] So, for my 11th birthday, my grandmother, my sister, and I saw Company — which was amazing! It changed my life. The score's in my bones; it's sort of DNA to me."

Company creators Sondheim, Furth, and Prince reunited for 1981's Merrily We Roll Along, in which Price played lyricist Charley Kringas — "the most thrilling theatrical experience of my performing career. I grew up loving Sondheim's music. To originate a role in a Sondheim show, to have him come to rehearsals with songs somewhat tailored to your talent is quite heady stuff. And I got to work with my mentor, Hal [Prince]. I was his office boy when I was 15, and attending Performing Arts High School. I'm very proud of my work in that show; it was the culmination of my whole childhood. It's dearest to my heart, and means the most to me of anything I've ever done.

"From there, it was downhill [as an actor]. Had I been given material of that quality consistently, I probably would never have stopped performing." Merrily closed after 52 previews and 16 performances. The next day, it was recorded by RCA-Victor. Price considers it "a kind of 'f--k you' album: 'See how great this score is.' In my opinion, it's one of [Sondheim's] best."

Native New Yorker Price made his Off-Broadway debut in Class Enemy, for which he and fellow cast member Maxwell Caulfield earned 1980 Theatre World Awards. As an actor, his many credits include: (films) "The Chosen," "Dirty Dancing"; (Off-Broadway) The Immigrant (Obie Award), Falsettoland; (Broadway) MASTER HAROLD...and the boys, Rags. Among his directing assignments: (Off-Broadway) Juno ("a favorite"), Visiting Mr. Green; (Broadway) Sally Marr...and her escorts (which he also co-wrote), Urban Cowboy.

He's also directed Broadway revivals of MASTER HAROLD..., and (most recently) 110 in the Shade. "I'm so proud of Audra [McDonald]. I think it's her best work [to date]." He has frequently directed Patti LuPone, most often at the Ravinia Festival (Highland Park, IL) in several Sondheim works: Passion, Anyone Can Whistle, et al. "I love Patti. She's extraordinary, silly, bawdy, joyful — an amazing actress and a powerful theatre voice."

Returning to the stage in A Class Act (which he also directed and co-wrote), Price played Chorus Line lyricist Ed Kleban, who died before achieving his goal to be recognized as a composer. After nine weeks at Manhattan Theatre Club, Class transferred to Broadway, where it received five Tony nominations, including Best Musical, Book, and Score (for Kleban's lyrics and music).

Price expresses doubt that he'll act again. "My need to be someone else eight times a week doesn't exist anymore. It stopped being fun." Come May, he directs Lerner and Loewe's Camelot, at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.

"Onstage," explains Price, "you see most of the actors in profile; on television, cross-shooting allows you to see the whole face. You capture the intensity in the face and eyes. The performances [in 'Company'] really come through."

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Laurie Metcalf in November
photo by Scott Landis

Art imitates life. In November, David Mamet's politically incorrect political comedy, Clarice Bernstein, speechwriter for a U.S. President (played by Nathan Lane), is ordered to the Oval Office by means of a telephone call. In real life, the speechwriter role was offered to Laurie Metcalf via a telephone call. "A David Mamet play, on Broadway, with Nathan Lane, and Joe Mantello [directing]? I immediately said yes. [Laughs]" Mamet, she tells me, "made small changes, sometimes things as tiny as a cut within a sentence, because he would hear it scan. I like that the play gets as crazy as it does, and spirals into out-and-out farce, but has serious moments."

John Simon's rave review noted, "Nathan Lane, a great comic actor, gets the part he needed to prove himself the greatest," and enthused that "the perennially amazing Laurie Metcalf...too long absent from our stages, returns."

Clarice is introduced as she returns from a trip to China, where she adopted a baby, caught the flu, purchased an amulet (which later proves helpful), and decided that she wants to marry her lesbian partner — on a nationally televised ceremony, performed by the Chief Exec.

First, however, she must deal with the panicky President. (Lane's eyebrows threaten to form an isosceles triangle with the base of his forehead.) Facing eviction from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, incumbent Charles Smith's bank balance is as low as his ratings. Desperate to raise funds for a presidential library, Smith also wants to win back his popularity. For that, he needs Clarice's help. A Bernstein speech, Smith tells her, "makes me sound smart." However, she's busy working on Smith's concession speech.

Her Act Two entrance is priceless. Decked out in wedding dress, veil, and jacket, she's a loopy-looking bride-to-be. Blocking her bridal path, however, are Smith's duplicitous lawyer (Dylan Baker), two (unseen) turkeys, and a pair of very funny Oval Office visitors. One is a representative (Ethan Phillips) of fowl by-products manufacturers; the other, Dwight Grackle (Michael Nichols), a Native American Micmac tribe chief on the war path. "It's a tight show. The rhythm of it has to be a certain way. It goes a mile a minute. Everybody's interdependent on hitting that stride. In that way, it's a great ensemble show." Exclaims Metcalf, "I love it!"

She disdains a few critics' opinions that Mamet resorts to sitcom humor. "That's easy, and kind of cheap. Granted, Nathan makes it look easy, but it's not. Comedy's much harder than drama." I quote the line supposedly said by an expiring actor: "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." She laughs. "Exactly!" Adds Metcalf, "To wring that many laughs out of a 90-minute show is very hard."

Metcalf and Lane previously acted together "at Williamstown, in She Stoops to Conquer, ages ago, and in [the short-lived 2003 sitcom] 'Charlie Lawrence.' I knew I really wanted to do [another] play with him. This type of show requires a lot of technique. Nathan's a master at that. It's great to watch him work — from a ringside seat."

Born in Carbondale, IL, Metcalf earned a BA in theatre at Illinois State University. During nine seasons (1988-97) as Jackie Harris, the star's sister on "Roseanne," Metcalf won three consecutive Emmys (1992-94), and was nominated four other times — once more for the sitcom, three for guest appearances. She's amused when I repeat a comment overheard at a November performance. One lady told another that Metcalf "played the sister on 'Roxanne'."

One of my friends is a big "Roseanne" fan. A rerun episode he likes best has Metcalf on the telephone trying to tell a hearing-impaired aunt that Jackie's father has died. But the woman can't hear her. Exasperated, Jackie finally screams, "He's dead!" After a pause, she sighs. "He's fine. He sends his love." Metcalf remembers the episode, "written by Norm MacDonald," her co-star (1999-2001), on "The Norm Show."

Roseanne Barr, insists Metcalf, "was never given enough credit for her acting. I loved watching her act. She also made it look easy [like Nathan Lane]. People could identify with things from Roseanne's personal life. She had a way of cutting to what was meaningful, and was willing to sacrifice laughs to get there. I was so lucky to have been a part of a show that I feel really proud of. It was the best experience ever!"

Appearing on several "Roseanne" episodes as Jackie's abusive boyfriend Fisher, is Matt Roth, Metcalf's (second) husband, who recently played Art Shepherd on several episodes of "Desperate Housewives." Metcalf and Roth are parents of three: Will (14), Donovan (7), and Mae (2). Older daughter Zoe Perry (born 1984) played Jackie as a child on two "Roseanne" flashback episodes. Her father, actor Jeff Perry is currently on Broadway (as Bill Fordham) in Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, a Steppenwolf production.

Perry, Gary Sinise, and Terry Kinney founded Steppenwolf, and "a very shy" Metcalf was "one of nine in the original company" of Chicago's famed theatre group. She sees her Steppenwolf colleagues "in New York, more than I do in Chicago, or L.A. Funny how that works out."

In 1984, Metcalf debuted Off-Broadway in the Steppenwolf-Circle Rep production of Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead, directed by John Malkovich. It won a Theatre World Award (for Metcalf), two Obies (Metcalf and Malkovich), two Drama Desk Awards (ensemble acting and director), and an Outer Circle Critics nod for Malkovich.

A Broadway debut occurred in 1995's short-lived My Thing of Love. Of her many stage appearances (Off-Broadway, in Chicago, and L.A.), the actress doesn't have a favorite. "I liked them all, for different reasons." Her grand-aunt, Zoe Akins (1886-1958), wrote several plays, one of which, The Old Maid, won a 1935 Pulitzer Prize. Akins' first Broadway success was 1919's Declasse, starring Ethel Barrymore. Almost 90 years later, the theatre named for that star houses November.

"For some reason," Metcalf points out, "matinee audiences have been wonderful. On two-show days, the first show's been so exhilarating, you can't wait to go back for the second." I couldn't wait to go back for the second time to see the comedy. Almost constant laughter fills the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Even the lobby portrait of the eponymous star wears a brighter smile.

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George Wendt in Hairspray
photo by Paul Kolnik

Would the benign barfly played by George Wendt on "Cheers" (1982-93) consider the actor's latest gig, as Edna Turnblad in Broadway's Hairspray, something out of the norm? The question makes Wendt laugh. "Norm served in the Coast Guard, so an encounter with a large woman from Baltimore [the musical's setting] could have happened." Norm Peterson (the character for which he earned six consecutive Emmy nominations, 1984-89) might well be disconcerted by Wendt's appearance as we chat in his Neil Simon Theatre dressing room, 20 minutes before curtain. If Norm saw George in Edna's wig, false eyelashes, and painted brows, he'd cry, "Mama, [He's] a Big Girl Now."

Admits Wendt, "The genesis of [playing Edna] started with the first national tour. There was some interest in me. I met with the creative team, but they gave the role to Bruce Vilanch. I figured that ship had sailed. Last summer, they asked if I was still interested — and here I am."

Following three weeks of rehearsals ("just about right"), Wendt took over the gender-bending role last October. He'd signed until late January, but has extended his contract "until the 20th of July — and there's no guarantee I'll leave then. [Laughs] It's great fun!"

Hairspray is not Wendt's first musical. He played Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (at Williamstown), and has appeared in Wild Men! (first in Chicago, then Off-Broadway) and Babes in Arms (at Chicago's Ovations).

On TV, as Harry McAfee, he sang "Kids" in "Bye Birdie" (a 1995 Zadan-Meron Storyline production). "I was received by the critics," recalls Wendt, "the same way that Paul Lynde [McAfee on Broadway, and in the movie] might have been, if he had played Norm in a remake of 'Cheers.'"

However, this is Wendt's first step into Fred Astaire territory. "After all, dancing has not been my life. [Laughs] That was the most daunting part of this, but we have a terrific dance captain who taught me everything."

Some people, relates Wendt, associate him with "Black or White," the 1991 Michael Jackson video, in which he played Macaulay Culkin's loudmouthed dad. Others know him from "Saturday Night Live" appearances as Bob Swerski, avid football fan of "Da Bears!" But most think of him as Norm: "The upside is I get a lot of free beers."

Along with Ted Danson and Rhea Perlman, Wendt appeared in every episode of "Cheers." The voice of Vera, Norm's never-seen wife, belongs to actress Bernadette Birkett, the real-life Mrs. Wendt. Parents of four sons and a daughter, they celebrate their 30th anniversary this year. Both Chicago-born, the Wendts met as members of Second City during his years (1974-80) with the improv group.

"I'd been there two or three years when I decided to be an actor. I was clueless as a young man; I only wanted to be in Second City. I'm glad it happened that way. If I thought: I'll be on a fabulous, hit sitcom, and have a 35-year career [to date], that would have been far too daunting."

Yasmina Reza's Art marked Wendt's 1998 London and Broadway debuts. He played Yvan in the three-character comedy. "I loved Art. I've seen five or six casts do it in different styles. It always works like a fugue."

Most recently, Wendt toured in Twelve Angry Men. "It was a total blast, a great group of guys. I played Juror Number One, the Foreman. I'd tell people that, and they'd give me a blank stare. I'd say, 'the Martin Balsam role [from the 1957 movie].' They'd go, 'Oh, yeah.' Richard Thomas was Henry Fonda. It's in Toronto, as we speak."

I very much enjoy Wendt as Edna, especially in the "Timeless to Me" duet with Tom Rooney, a top-notch Wilbur, Edna's husband. (Looks like Rooney's having a fun day on a lark with George). Wendt gets entrance applause, and an ovation at the curtain call.

It brings to mind his immediate response when I ask, as the interview ends, "Which stage role has given you the most satisfaction?" Claims Wendt, "This one — Edna. For somebody who hasn't done much singing and dancing, it's so rewarding. At my age, you couldn't ask for a better role."

Cheers!

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VARIOUS AND SUNDRY

Should Julie Christie (deservedly) win the Academy Award as Best Actress for "Away from Her", she'll set a record for the longest time between Oscars, surpassing Helen Hayes, whose wins were 38 years apart. Christie, whose sole Broadway appearance was in a 1973 production of Uncle Vanya, first won as Best Actress of 1965 for "Darling" — 42 years ago.

My January column acknowledged the superb performance of gifted stage vet Ruby Dee, as the mother of Denzel Washington in "American Gangster". She's since won a SAG Award and, at 83 (almost seven decades since her film debut), is a first-time Oscar nominee. Isn't that Dee-lovely?

Recognize the actor playing Miles, the "ghostbuster" who just landed (Feb. 7) on the island in TV's "Lost"? That's Ken Leung, who was Ching Ho in Broadway's Thoroughly Modern Millie, his sole Broadway credit.

Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between artists who cross freely between theatre, film and television. Michael Buckley has written this column since 2002. Contact him at stagetoscreens@aol.com.

"A Raisin in the Sun" executive producer Craig Zadan, Audra McDonald, Sean Combs (also executive producer), Justin Martin, executive producer Neil Meron, Phylicia Rashad and Sanaa Lathan.
"A Raisin in the Sun" executive producer Craig Zadan, Audra McDonald, Sean Combs (also executive producer), Justin Martin, executive producer Neil Meron, Phylicia Rashad and Sanaa Lathan.
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