PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Raisin in the Sun Shines

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27 Apr 2004

From Top: Ruby Dee and Sean Combs, Chris Tucker and A.J. Calloway, Beyonce, Kenny Leon and Brooke Shields, Audra McDonald and Angela Bassett (right), Andrew Young, Spike Lee and wife, and Ossie Davis
From Top: Ruby Dee and Sean Combs, Chris Tucker and A.J. Calloway, Beyonce, Kenny Leon and Brooke Shields, Audra McDonald and Angela Bassett (right), Andrew Young, Spike Lee and wife, and Ossie Davis
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

It rained mercilessly on Sean Combs' parade April 26, but that didn't dampen the spirit of his Broadway debut, and it didn't deter his legion of enthusiastic followers, who looked like a giant mushroom of umbrellas across the street from the Royale Theatre, where he bowed in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.

They were there when the curtain went up, and they reassembled when the curtain came down—a fact duly noted by a number of Broadway execs who worry where their next untapped market is coming from.

At intermission, the fans had gone in out of the rain (blind adoration, apparently, knows some limits). The only activity in front of the theatre was the special spectacle of Naomi Campbell not very discreetly scurrying into a SUV and slipping off into the night. Had she returned for the second act, the model might have benefitted from the master's class in acting that was being conducted on stage by Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald and Sanaa Lathan in their roles of Combs' mother, wife and sister in the drama.

The rapper known as P. Diddy, sometime as Puff Daddy, is the raison d'etre of A Raisin in the Sun's first Broadway revival—it has only been back, musicalized, as simply Raisin—and its second coming was An Event that rained celebrities. To name Names: Oprah Winfrey, Chris Tucker, Beyonce, Iman, Brooke Shields, A. J. Calloway, Russell Simmons, Jay Z, Intimate Apparel's Viola Davis, Heavy D, Star Jones, Ivana Trump, R. Kelly, Marissa Copeland, Babyface, Angela Bassett, "60 Minutes"' Ed Bradley, Judith Jamison, L.A. Reid, Andrew Young, Micki Grant, Barbara Montgomery, Andre Harrell, Gerald Levert, Howard Bingham and Fab 5 Freddy.

Combs manfully took on Broadway as Walter Lee Younger, a role that did for Sidney Poitier what Stanley Kowalski did for Marlon Brando. Looking a little like a long-distance runner crossing the finish line, he waved a defiant fist in the air—then, as if just remembering what the occasion was about, he darted backstage and returned with a T-shirt bearing a picture of the play's author, Lorraine Hansberry, who died of cancer in 1965 at the too young age of 34. (She adorns the Playbill as well.)

"This is a testament to the genius of Lorraine Hansberry," filmmaker Spike Lee declared later at the post-premiere party held across town at the posh Guastavino's on East 59th. "She was a visionary. She wrote about the struggles of African-Americans in this country, and the stuff she said is as relevant today as when she said it. It's a great piece of work."

Combs continued that refrain, once he arrived at the party. "I appreciate and respect Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee and Lorraine Hansberry," he said. "I don't run away from the past. I'm here standing on the shoulders of giants, and they were true giants."

As CEO and founder of the decade-old Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group, Combs casts a pretty imposing shadow himself in the music industry. It provides him a lavish living. He doesn't really need Broadway—so why did he take this sharp right turn into a whole new field of entertainment? "I ask myself that question all the time—and have since I decided to do this," he replied. "I think it was something that said to me, `By God, as an actor, this is the chance of a lifetime!' It was definitely scary when the opportunity presented itself, but I didn't hesitate to jump at the chance, and I've stuck in there. To be honest, I don't think I was really thinking straight. I was just so overwhelmed to be asked to do this I don't think I realized what it'd take to accomplish it. I've been taking it day by day. I'm young, I got a long way to go, and I'm getting better every day."

Ossie Davis, who replaced Poitier in the original run, applauded the rapper's courage in going for it: "Knowing what a difficult role this is, I was delighted and surprised that this young man, with no experience in the theatre, has come this far this fast. I'm pleased with what he did. And Phylicia! What she did has not been equalled before. The best ever."

For Davis, experiencing the play again was deja vu plus. "It was like seeing something from the past that you don't quite remember or quite understand, and now, what you see you do. There were things about the play that I thought I knew, but I really didn't. It's only now that I understand what it was about. Lorraine Hansberry was almost in the same position Sean is in—just starting out—and she came up with an extraordinary evocation of that kind of life. It was a tremendously exhilarating act. The more I see it, the more it amazes me."

Dee, his wife of 52 years, originated the role of Ruth, the quietly suffering wife, and reprised that performance in film. She, too, took a still-learning stance. "The woman who did my role, Audra McDonald, brought things to it that I never did, just as Phylicia Rashad brought things that Claudia McNeil didn't. They were both dynamic and dramatic. And, after 45 years, I'm excited that the play is back on Broadway. What got me was that Lorraine and Diana Sands [the original's sister] both died in their 30s. I can't get over it."

McDonald, who makes an entirely different kind of music than Combs, proved to be a highly harmonious spouse. "I love the challenge, but it's the hardest role I ever played. Oh, God, yes! Without a doubt—because it's so unspoken. Everything that happens to her is happening on the inside. Lorraine doesn't give Ruth much to say. I've done it three times, I think, in front of Ruby Dee, and she said it was one of the hardest roles she ever played, too. She has been very supporting—and, in fact, it feels like love from Ruby."


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