In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway, the first play ever by an African American woman to do so. (The title comes from Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem”: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”) Its revival in 2004 represented another historical landmark, of a sort -- the stage debut of Sean Combs, the hip-hop tycoon alternately known as Puffy, Diddy and Puff Daddy.
That production, or a version of it, has been filmed for television, with Combs as executive producer and the principal cast intact. (Director Kenny Leon is back as well.) John Stamos is a new, TV-friendly addition, but the film comes with ample television cred. Phylicia Rashad was on “The Cosby Show,” and Audra McDonald is on “Private Practice,” although Rashad, who won a Tony for this role -- the first African American to win best lead actress in a play -- has lately transferred her affections to the stage. And McDonald is herself a four-time Tony winner.
When it opened, “A Raisin in the Sun” was a contemporary story meant to dramatize a turning point in black consciousness, a picture of “old Negroes” versus “new Negroes,” and attitudes about social mobility and racial pride, different aspects of which are exemplified and argued over by the Younger family of Chicago’s South Side. Hansberry addressed her text to the past, present and future, but in 2008, it’s a period piece, a play about the way black people lived 50 years ago. It still has value, nevertheless, as a picture of human relations, the embodiment of a moment in history, and for its craft and its energy.
Paris Qualles’ teleplay is not a strict translation of Hansberry’s original -- “based on” is how the credits read. The play itself has been both streamlined and expanded -- “opened up,” as plays usually are when moved to the screen, to take the players out of the one or two rooms that onstage might stand for a whole world. And yet that physical constriction is part of what makes theater exciting, and the best parts of this film are the most “theatrical” and contained, where the quasi-athletic interplay of actors bouncing off one another in a small space is most palpable. You can see why Rashad and McDonald got their Tonys.
The catalytic event here is the imminent arrival of a $10,000 life insurance check, coming to Lena Younger (Rashad) after the death of her husband. Her son, Walter Lee (Combs) -- who lives with her, along with his sister, Beneatha (Tony-nominated Saana Lathan), wife Ruth (McDonald) and their son -- is counting on getting a piece of that money to invest in a liquor store. He is a man of big dreams but limited imagination.
There would be no reason to assume Combs couldn’t act simply because of his day job. It does, however, take a certain bravado, or a lack of sense, for an amateur to step into what is not only a difficult part to pull off, but also one that was originated by Sidney Poitier (onstage and in the 1961 film, for which Hansberry wrote the screenplay). That is running before you can walk.
Combs does a fair enough job hitting his marks, and he has successfully made himself into a working-class man of the middle 20th century; there is no trace of his own fabulous life in his portrayal of Walter Lee, but there are no overtones in his performance, no intermediate shades -- it’s all primary colors. It’s impossible not to notice that he works at a lower skill level than his costars, who support but also eclipse him. He seems merely petulant in a role that requires us to feel him half-mad and twisted up inside -- “You’re damn right I’m bitter,” he says, “I’m a volcano, I’m a giant, a giant surrounded by ants” -- and the weight of the play shifts to the women who put up with him, each of whom he resents for one thing or another -- not supporting him sufficiently well or, in the case of his sister, who wants to be a doctor, getting the support he feels he deserves.
Leon’s film tends to lose momentum when he opens it up; you miss the small apartment where the many Youngers live on top of one another. The added dialogue is serviceable but clearly cut from a different cloth than Hansberry’s, and new scenes in which Lena is ill-treated by a grocer or Walter Lee is harassed by a policeman are no less obvious for being historically accurate. And a musical score that creeps in under key speeches and tells you what to feel about them does no service to the complexities of Hansberry’s text.
The play, and the production, might have been better served by rolling a few cameras into the theater, but I know that isn’t how people like to do these things.
‘A Raisin in the Sun’
When: 8 to 11 tonight
Rating: TV-14 L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for coarse language)