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A Night in the Sun

TheaterMania talks to Sean Combs, Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad, and Sanaa Lathan about the ABC telefilm of A Raisin in the Sun. logo
Audra McDonald, Sean Combs, Kenny Leon,
and Phylicia Rashad at the TimesCenter
(© Tristan Fuge)
When ABC-TV devotes three hours on Monday, February 25 to air its made-for-television film of Lorraine Hansberry's classic drama A Raisin in the Sun, it will mark a special event in more ways than one. Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron managed to reunite all four of the 2004 Broadway revival's stars: Sean Combs as Walter Lee Younger, Audra McDonald as Ruth Younger, Phylicia Rashad as Lena Younger, and Sanaa Lathan as Benethea Younger. TheaterMania spoke to this quartet of remarkable performers in separate interviews about their involvement in this landmark project.

Combs, who is one of the film's executive producers, has perhaps the most riding on the film's success -- and not just financially. He made his Broadway debut in the role, to mixed notices, and is thrilled to have another crack at the character of Walter, a man whose unfulfilled dreams of material success almost destroy his family. "The stakes were higher for the television movie because we know it would be seen by more people," he says. "On Broadway, I was just trying to find Walter -- and I think I did on a couple of nights -- but now that I've had time to mature as an actor, I really have. But I still say Broadway was the greatest experience of my life."

A mogul in areas as diverse as fashion and rap music, Combs says he nevertheless totally understands Walter. "I grew up in a house with three women. I watched my grandmother do two jobs, and I can remember the look on my mother's face when I asked her for things we couldn't afford," he recalls. "And my dream of making it in the music industry wasn't so different than Walter's dream of owning a liquor store. In both cases, no one believed it could be done. I think the message of the play is to never give up hope and keep pursuing your dreams. And that's a message that's especially important for African-American men, who are born in a condition where they feel their life is pre-destined for failure."

McDonald, who won her fourth Tony Award for playing Walter's often unhappy wife, Ruth, said revisiting this role -- the film was made over a year after the Broadway play closed -- was a mixed blessing. "I was excited to work with everyone again, but I had some trepidation about delving back into the character," she says. "It wasn't just a question of I would have the same grasp on her, but I knew it would be hard to stay in Ruth's misery 18 hours a day, rather than three hours on stage. When the script says she breaks down and sobs, you know you have to make it real, sometimes over and over again."

However, the actress was ultimately even more satisfied with her performance. "I was able to go deeper, to find even more specificity than before," she says. "Having a real apartment to shoot in helped me. But one of the big factors was that Sean had changed; he had more experience and a great level of focus. Plus, our director, Kenny Leon, pushed me and pushed me until I thought I was going to break. He's never satisfied, but always supportive, and I love and need that in a director."

Rashad, who won the Tony for her portrayal of the family's matriarch Lena, is no stranger to television -- having gained fame as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show -- but has worked almost exclusively on the stage in recent years. In revisiting the role of Lena, she says she had a sort of epiphany that helped her bring even more depth and understanding to her portrayal. "One day, I realized that since the play took place in 1959, Lena was born in 1904 -- which was also the year the play Gem of the Ocean [in which she starred as Aunt Ester] took place," she recalls. "But when that light went off in my head, what I also remembered was spending time on the farm my father grew up on and how land was so important to them, and I understood why that plant meant so much to Lena. I also understood her bewilderment and her disappointment that her children did not appreciate what they had been given, even though they had more opportunities than Lena or her husband."

Rashad also had high praise for Leon's directing skills. "Kenny was very concerned, like any good film director, about his angles, about getting the quality of shot he wanted. He wasn't composing the film from a formulaic point of view," she says. "More important, he was really looking into the interior life of these people through film. And he managed to open up the film quite beautifully."

Sean Patrick Thomas and Sanaa Lathan in A Raisin in the Sun
(© ABC/Peter Stranks)
Lathan, an accomplished film actress, received a Tony nomination for playing Benethea, a headstrong young woman who plans on becoming a doctor. She says Leon instilled a great deal of trust in the cast -- although she has known Rashad practically her entire life. "The cast as a whole didn't really have to do anything to create the idea of being a family; it happened by default. I consider Audra a sister now," she says.

However, she initially resisted the idea of taking on the role of Benethea on Broadway. "My first reaction when I got the script for the play was 'Why? We have other stories to tell.' But as soon as I read it, I felt it was not just applicable to our times, but it spoke to me deeply and personally. Benethea is the closest character to whom Lorraine really was, which was a woman before her time. And to write that like that when she was just 27. I'm sure that lots of people were skeptical that she could make a living as a writer -- just as people thought I might not make one as an actress. We both had faith and determination."

Perhaps the highest compliment for the film comes from producer Zadan: "When we saw the rough cut, we were just flabbergasted about how good it was."

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