Sean Combs, the hip-hop star and music mogul who headlines ABC’s new production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” is perplexed when people ask him why he was so determined to remake a story that debuted on Broadway in 1959, was followed two years later by a big-screen film starring Sidney Poitier and was revived on Broadway in 2004.
He compares Lorraine Hansberry’s classic saga of a struggling lower-class black family to a Shakespearean masterpiece that deserves to be replicated over and over.
“It’s important that the story lives on, just like `Romeo and Juliet’ lives on,” he says.
Combs will get no argument from Stanley Williams, who helped to establish the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco, or Sean Vaughn Scott, who is currently directing an adaptation of “Raisin” for Berkeley’s Black Repertory Group.
“It’s any man’s story. It’s a family story. It’s an essentially American story,” says Williams, who was moved to tears when he first saw the play as a teenager in the early 1960s. “It’s a story that retains its power.”
“The piece is timeless in that it speaks to many of the issues we’re still dealing with today,” says Vaughn Scott. “And I suspect it will be no less relevant 10 years from now.”
That powerful sense of relevancy is a big reason Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (“Chicago,” “Hairspray”) were motivated to bring “Raisin” to television. The producers, who have enjoyed great success translating stage productions to the screen, long have been interested in Hansberry’s moving and provocative portrait of people whose hopes and dreams are constantly deferred.
They attempted, with no success, to get a film project off the ground even before Combs starred in the Broadway revival with Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald and Sanaa Lathan. But once they saw the crowds flocking to see Combs, they concluded that it was time to try again.
“He brought out this very young audience and people you don’t normally see at the theater,” recalls Meron. “We thought it was the perfect opportunity to expose it to a large audience and that we could do it even better with the subtlety and additional intimacy you can achieve with television.”
ABC immediately gave the project a green light, but Zadan and Meron, who were determined to retain the core Broadway cast, struggled to line up the schedules of their busy stars. Two years passed before actors and crew finally gathered for a brisk 24-day shoot in Toronto.
“At first, we were a little nervous about getting back into the skin of these characters. It was like, `Can we do this again?’” says McDonald. “But Hansberry’s words are so powerful and the rhythm of the piece is such that we immediately felt right at home again.”
And Rashad believes that, under the direction of Kenny Leon, they were able to intensify the feelings and emotions of Hansberry’s work.
“This time, we just took it further,” she says. “Onstage, you feel a little distance. But with film, it’s up close and very personal.”
That’s just the way, they wanted it, says Zadan, who explains that the story was shot in Super 16, a seldom-used and relatively grainy type of film stock.
“We didn’t want a real slick look. We wanted a fly-on-the-wall, almost cinema-verite approach,” he says. “And there are times when you feel like you’re eavesdropping on this family - like you’re hearing things that you shouldn’t be hearing. And it can be uncomfortable.”
And there is much uncomfort, at times, in “Raisin.” Combs, who also served as an executive producer, plays Walter Lee Younger Jr., a young man who shares a claustrophobic one-room tenement apartment with his mother (Rashad), wife (McDonald), sister (Lathan) and his young son on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s.
An anxiety-ridden Walter desperately yearns to leave his job as a chauffeur for something bigger. And he believes his opportunity is at hand as his mother, Lena, anticipates a $10,000 life insurance check in the wake of her husband’s death.
But the family matriarch vehemently opposes Walter’s plans to invest in a liquor store, mainly for ethical reasons. She instead wants to use the money to move the family into a house in a residential neighborhood that turns out to be unreceptive to blacks.
Adding to the tension is the news that Walter’s wife, Ruth, has just become pregnant, and she’s not sure whether it makes sense to add to the family at this time.
“A Raisin in the Sun” is a heart-wrenching but ultimately uplifting story fortified by themes of ambition, racism, family values, feminism, and pride in African heritage. It was the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, and it captured the 1959 New York Drama Critics Award for best American play. The 2004 revival brought Tony Awards for Rashad and McDonald.
“I think a lot of young men can relate to the dreamy visions of Walter,” says Vaughn Scott. “They want the glamor. They want to be somebody. But the play also makes it clear that there is a certain dignity that comes to going to work every day like the mother did and making an honest living. It also says something about the power of the family.”
“The play has changed the way some people look at life,” says Williams. “I know it deeply inspired me and made me want to get involved in the kind of arts that moves people, makes changes and has an impact.”