The big news coming out of the newest Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun is that a beloved pop-cultural star known to millions displays unexpected talents in a tough role. The bigger news is that the MVP is Phylicia Rashad, who, in a 1959 play as four-square in its assembly as it is groundbreaking in its commitment to African-American realism, takes the role of matriarch Lena Younger and gives the God-fearing mama a contemporary spine of tough, clear-eyed love.
In other news, Sean Combs makes an unembarrassing (if notably underdeveloped) Broadway acting debut as Mama’s grown boy Walter Lee Younger – married man and father, frustrated chauffeur and reckless dreamer, seething in the cramped Chicago flat he shares with mother, pregnant wife (Audra McDonald), budding black-power activist sister (Sanaa Lathan), and son (Alexander Mitchell).
And if it’s the novelty of a P. Diddyness deferred that brings a new, young audience unfamiliar with the classic to see Lorraine Hansberry’s proud, wordy, landmark achievement, well then, props to him: Come for Diddy, stay for the suppleness and focus with which Rashad paces the entire production by every turn of her head or pause in her speech, smoothing out the uneven performance styles of her costars with steely patience. Regional theater veteran Kenny Leon directs, moving his players in expected ways around a set (by Thomas Lynch) nicely faded and worn, lit (by Brian MacDevitt) as if to outrun the shadows of economic deprivation. But it’s Rashad’s Lena who most effectively fans the fires of Hansberry’s play so that the historical heat of this reliable Sun can be felt.