On the 30-year anniversary of the beloved drama’s Broadway premiere, PBS aired an uncut, three-hour TV adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun starring Danny Glover and Esther Rolle. Director Bill Duke told The Los Angeles Times, “This play transcends time and race. It applies to all poor people. What Lorraine says is something that should be said often: Folks that don’t have money, folks that society looks down its nose at, are some of the noblest spirits among us.”
In 1989, A Raisin in the Sun was adapted into a movie starring Danny Glover, the profound African American actor, well known and respected for his various roles in films including The Color Purple, and Esther Rolle, who is best known for her role as Florida Evans on the CBS sitcom Good Times. This production, based on an Off-Broadway revival, received three Emmy Award nominations; all of which were for technical categories. In 2004, A Raisin in the Sun was revived for the first and only time on Broadway at the Royal Theatre.
This version of Lorraine Hansberry’s play had a cast consisting of prominent African-American actors and figures such as Sean Combs, Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad, and Sanaa Lathan. It ran at the Royale Theatre for 31 previews and 89 performances. McDonald and Rashad both won the Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for their performances, and Lathan was honored with the prestigious Theatre World Award.
The Shubert Organization
New York City, NY
Opening-April 26, 2004
Closing-July 11, 2004
Directed: Kenny Leon
Set design: Thomas Lynch
Costume design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Sound design: T. Richard Fitzgerald
Composer: Dwight Andrews
Walter Lee Younger – Sean Combs
Ruth Younger – Audra McDonald
Travis Younger – Alexander Mitchell
Lena Younger (Mama) – Phylicia Rashad
Beneatha Younger – Sanaa Latahn
Joseph Asagai – Teagle F. Bougere
George Murchinson – Frank Harts
Bobo – Bill Nunn
Karl Lindner – David Aaron Baker
Moving Men-Lawrence Ballard, Billy Eugene Jones
”Raisin in the Sun” depicts Walter Lee’s belated emergence into manhood. And in his opening scene — as he pouts and teases with his wife, Ruth (Ms. McDonald) — Mr. Combs’s Walter evokes a man who in his 30’s is still marooned in early adolescence. You might even mistake this Walter for the older brother of Travis (Alexander Mitchell), the little boy who is in fact his son. Clearly, Mr. Combs has left lots of space for Walter to grow. Unfortunately, that space is never filled.
This omission makes the revival a lopsided and ultimately dreary affair. Though the production features sterling work from Ms. McDonald and Ms. Rashad, who plays Walter Lee’s formidable mother, it lacks the fully developed central performance from Mr. Combs that would hold the show together. This Walter Lee never appears to change, in big ways or small. Happy or sad, drunk or sober, angry or placating, his evenly measured words and debating team captain’s gestures remain pretty much the same.
This is a significant problem since Walter Lee is meant to represent a new generational spirit among African-Americans in a time of social transition. And neither Mr. Combs nor the exceptionally pretty Sanaa Lathan — as Walter Lee’s ambitious sister, Beneatha, who is studying to be a doctor — makes an argument for this generation as one to pin your hopes on.
From beginning to end, they register as petulant, spoiled overgrown children with none of the complexity of the maternal figures played by Ms. McDonald and Ms. Rashad. This ”Raisin” is all about the kids versus the grown-ups, and not in the sense that Hansberry meant it. Instead of contrasting the forces of conservative, God-fearing womanhood with a fresh revolutionary spirit, the show becomes an ungainly counterpoint of mature and callow acting styles.
Then there’s Combs, a music star who has appeared in a couple of movies but has no real stage experience. It shows. He has a tendency to act by protruding his lips but seldom does much with the rest of his face, body, or voice. More importantly, he doesn’t have a firm grasp on Walter’s dreams; a major part of the plot concerns Walter’s desire to buy a liquor store, but his emotional state doesn’t seem to change whether he just desires it, sees the opportunity slip away, or experiences the final result of his attempts. The rest of Walter’s major moments receive similarly ineffective treatment.
It can’t be easy for Combs to share the stage with his three extraordinary co-stars, and he deserves a great amount of respect for being willing to take on such a challenging role. But Combs’s work is so unconvincing and his Walter so unspecific, he seems like a bystander rather than an active participant in the action. During his scenes with Lathan, McDonald, and Rashad, he looks and sounds completely out of his element.
During these times – and when Combs is not onstage – the lead women’s talents keep the play soaring higher and higher. Everyone else – including Leon, Lynch, Fitzgerald, costume designer Paul Tazewell, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, and all the other actors – keeps A Raisin in the Sun at that high level from beginning to end. If Combs’s contributions prevent this production from being absolutely perfect, overall, it still feels like a dream come blissfully true.http://www.talkinbroadway.com/world/RaisinSun.html