When Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" first appeared on Broadway in 1959 (and I was there, a theater-addicted high school student dazzled by the bright lights), it was a revelation for its frank dramatization of racial prejudice and conflicting African American attitudes toward race, assimilation and gender roles.
There was also the fabulous cast, led by a future Hall of Fame of black actors, including Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Louis Gosset Jr. and the legendary Claudia McNeil, directed by a young man destined for greatness, Lloyd Richards. That same cast was in the 1961 movie.
'A Raisin in the Sun'
When: 8 p.m Monday, ABC.
Starring: Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald
The 2004 Broadway revival couldn't claim to be a revelation. But it showed the plight of the Younger family still resonated -- that their struggle to prosper in a world where African Americans were largely confined to service jobs and where escaping from roach-infested apartments required facing down fearful white neighbors still seemed current, not just a message from the distant past.
And it showcased another fabulous cast, led by Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald and Sanaa Lathan, along with the notorious Sean Combs (a k a P. Diddy), directed by another young man of great promise, Kenny Leon.
One of those 2004 things didn't match 1959, of course. Combs was no Sidney Poitier. As I said in my Broadway review, he wasn't as bad as some New Yorkers reported with glee, but his passive Walter Lee did change the center of the play. What had seemed the drama of a young black man's growth into heroism now was revealed as the drama of extraordinary nurturing women.
But you can make that judgment for yourself. The 2004 Broadway production has been opened up and recreated on screen, to be broadcast Monday at 8 p.m. as a three-hour ABC movie. With the exception of John Stamos as the mealy-mouth white man who arrives to try to buy off the Younger family so they won't move into his neighborhood, the principal actors repeat their roles.
But there's a big difference: this TV appearance will introduce a whole new audience to a great American play. In the process they will see some wonderful acting, especially from the luminous McDonald as Walter Lee's wife, Ruth. And they will see the movie debut of director Leon, who has helped turn these fine stage performances into convincing movie work, with the help of a screenplay by Paris Qualles that opens up the play into small additional scenes that will be a special pleasure for those who already know the play on stage.
Leon favors the close up, as you must for TV, but it does sacrifice the impact of some of the most dramatic scenes.
Combs still suffers from contrast to his fellow players, but his Walter Lee is a convincing boy-man, weak, fretful, oddly blank, but with the seeds of responsibility taking root. McDonald navigates the greatest range of emotion; she made me cry. Lathan is darling as the future professional woman with the two boyfriends (Sean Patrick Thomas and David Oyelowo).
As to Phylicia Rashad as Lena, the matriarch, this was the show that proved she was a fine stage actress and won her the chance to play August Wilson's Aunt Ester. She is very fine, without doubt. But whereas on stage she seemed old and worn enough for Lena, on film she seems too young, reversing the usual dynamic where stage actors turn up on film looking too old.
No matter. "A Raisin in the Sun" remains an essential American play, a drama of aspiration and family cohesion, as meaningful today as ever before.
Theater critic Chris Rawson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1666. Ask TV questions at post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.