Rapper delights in `Raisin'

P. Diddy takes role of Walter Lee on stage

April 28, 2004|By Linda Winer | Linda Winer,NEWSDAY

There are many moving speeches in A Raisin in the Sun, eloquent cries into the past and the future of a black family on the South Side of Chicago in 1959.

Still, one outburst with special resonance seems to sum up the hype and the force driving the expert, if a bit leisurely, straightforward revival of Lorraine Hansberry's seminal drama that opened Monday night at the Royale Theatre. The words belong to Walter Lee Younger, the 34-year-old chauffeur who lives with his wife, his son and his grown sister in his mother's three-room flat with the shared bathroom down the hallway.

Walter Lee vows that a man must "Think big. Invest big. Gamble big - hell, even lose big if you have to." He is talking about his scheme to buy a liquor store with the precious money his mother just received from his dead father's insurance policy. Since the actor playing Walter Lee is Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, the hip-hop mogul making his theater debut, however, the high-stakes declaration could also have been his own.

No more suspense. Nobody loses - at least not in any big way. Combs is better than OK. He has presence playing someone besides his own formidable self. He projects. He allows himself to show a touching vulnerability as a man trapped in black America and infantalized by the mother who loves him.

Combs may not have the most expressive face on the stage, and he doesn't yet break our hearts when the situation breaks his spirit. But there is a sweetness in him, and director Kenny Leon makes sure this Walter Lee gets to express his youthful exuberance - and his impotent rage - through his physicality. Could a seasoned actor have found more intricate shadings in the character? Of course. Would Broadway be entertaining all the young and diverse audiences that are lining up? Of course not.

In a gesture that could have been a stunt, pure hubris, a massive humiliation or a really good deed, Combs began his stage career at the top with Hansberry's certifiable classic. With no acting experience, he chose to play one of the iconic characters in black theater history - one originated on Broadway and in the 1961 film by no less an artist than Sydney Poitier. Then Combs is surrounded with the top of the acting food chain - including Phylicia Rashad as the matriarch and Audra McDonald as Ruth, the long-suffering wife.

McDonald, with her three Tony Awards and her musical background, is no less substantial in this nonsinging role created by Ruby Dee. At first, McDonald underplays Ruth's unhappiness about the years cleaning other people's houses and living in someone else's home. But she has a simmering sensuality that plays beautifully off whatever is left of the troubled marriage. And when Walter Lee's mother buys a house with the money, Ruth's happiness gives us a glimpse of the woman who could have been.

Rashad is the revelation as Lena Younger, a character more often portrayed with a forbidding side to her love. We get the sense that this really could be the mother of a man with Walter Lee's potential for joy. When she slaps Beneatha, her bright, ambitious daughter for denying God's place in her accomplishments, the action is horrifying for its uncharacteristic fury.

Sanaa Lathan, better known in movies than stage, is lovely as Beneatha, the woman of the future, who tries on life as if it is a new dress and wants to be a doctor. Teagle F. Bougere makes her suitor from Africa seem as heroic as he is smart. David Aaron Baker is aptly feverish as the representative from the "neighborhood improvement" that prefers its improvements white.

Hansberry, the first black playwright on Broadway with a black cast and director, understood the back-to-Africa movement and the underside of assimilation. She clearly had few illusions about middle-class aspirations. As Walter Lee says, there are "the takers and the tooken." By no means is the ending as happily-ever-after as the conventional structure leads us to expect.

This Raisin may have been a gamble, but the payoff is also an investment. Broadway needs these audiences more than Combs needs this kind of old-fashioned, anti-hip validation. We see no obvious cynicism in that.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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