PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Raisin in the Sun Shines

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.

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)

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."

The three-time Tony winner will next lift her voice in song (as opposed to drama) June 4 at Carnegie Hall, no less. Next year, at the Jazz at Lincoln Center theatre, she and Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris will rekindle the Passion they recently did at Ravinia. And she's down for an operatic version of Jean Cocteau's The Human Voice in Houston ("I don't know why they printed that because it won't actually happen until 2006-2007.")

Rashad arrived at the party, totally transformed into her usual beautiful self. When she hits the stage of the Royale, she is unrecognizable—a completely different human being. "I fed the lie" is all the magic she'll give away. And, yes, she admitted her matriarch is a big drain on her dramatic juices. "It's like getting caught in a tornado eight times a week."

The true daddy at Puff Daddy's bash was David Aaron Baker, who came with son Lian strapped around his chest in a blanket. "He's six weeks today, young enough we can still take him to parties." Baker plays the one man "welcoming" committee who tries to bribe the Younger clan from coming into his all-white neighborhood—and he did it without the squeaky, milquetoast voice of John Fiedler, who did the part on stage, screen and TV.

"I never saw him," Baker confessed, "and I'm sorta relieved I didn't because Kenny Leon, the director, and I were able to work on a new version of the character. One of the things that Kenny said to me when I first met him at the audition was `This character has to be strong.' He wanted someone younger in the part, someone who was the same age as Walter, someone who was an equal with Walter so it wouldn't be a generational thing. It really would be just race. These two are really equals: unicorns with different skin color."

Runner up for new daddy: Brian Stokes Mitchell, who said he is taking some time off to enjoy his new status, having just finished his album and a television pilot in Los Angeles.

Leon, who has lately been toiling as an actor regionally in August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, won't be sailing into Broadway in that show. Instead, he'll be directing Jessye Norman and Denyse Graves in Margaret Garner, the new Toni Morrison opera (music by Richard Danielpour) which will world premiere next spring in Philadelphia. "The challenge for me with A Raisin in the Sun," he said, "was that they were all coming from such different places. I had to get them in the same room and treat them like a family and still make an ensemble. I never met anybody who worked as hard as Sean."

Most radiant face around was Janet Combs'. She, of course, always knew she'd given birth to a Broadway star: "Sean was born to be a star. He was born to be in the spotlight."

The cast gives their opening night curtain call at the Royale Theatre
The cast gives their opening night curtain call at the Royale Theatre (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)