March 30 saw the remounting of the classic Broadway drama, A Raisin in the Sun, written by the late Lorraine Hansberry, an African-American playwright. The play was originally performed in 1959 with an all-star cast that included Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ruby Dee, Louis Gossett, Ivan Dixon, Glynn Turman, John Fielder, Lonne Elder III, Ed Hall and Douglas Turner Ward. That performance marked the first time that the work of a female African-American playwright had been performed on a Broadway stage. The current production officially opened on April 26 at the Royale Theatre at 242 West 45th Street.
A Raisin in the Sun shares the struggle of three generations of the Younger family, who live in an apartment on Chicago’s Southside in the 1950s. The characters are Mama, portrayed by Phylicia Rashad, who played the beloved mother on The Cosby Show, her children, Beneatha, played by Sanaa Lathan, star of the film Love and Basketball, and her son, Walter Lee, played by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, CEO and founder of Bad Boy Entertainment, who is making his stage debut. Walter’s son, Travis, is played by Alexander Mitchell, who was previously on Broadway in The Lion King, and Walter’s wife, Ruth, played by Audra McDonald, a three-time Tony Award winner for her roles in the Broadway productions Ragtime, Carousel and Master Class.
McDonald took some time to talk with TNJ while the show was in rehearsal.
TNJ: How do you feel about being in A Raisin in the Sun‚ when the play has not been on the Broadway stage in nearly 50 years?
Audra McDonald: I’m really excited that it’s seeing the light of day again. When you sit down with the script, you realize how powerful it is. The characters are people you know, are and can identify with.
TNJ: The Tony Awards you won in the past have been mainly for musicals. What is it like for you to come to Broadway in a classic drama like A Raisin in the Sun?
McDonald: That was another reason that I was so attracted to this role. It’s a departure for me. The character I am playing has a quiet strength and presence. I think she’s a character that I’m closer to at this point in my life. I’m a wife and mother with a toddler. I certainly know what it’s like to try to take care of a household, family and work.
TNJ: How are you preparing for the role of Ruth?
McDonald: I’m preparing for it as we speak—basically reading the script. I’ve been spending a lot of time with my mom and getting stories. She has a lot of relatives who lived on the Chicago Southside in the 1950s. The experiences they had are similar to the ones in the play.
TNJ: How do you anticipate it will be to work with Sean Combs?
McDonald: I think he’s going to work really hard. He’s very new to the stage, but he’s very excited and inspired by the idea of doing this role.
TNJ: The play is set almost five decades in the past. Why is it relevant today?
McDonald: Because there aren’t just African-American people in this country in that situation. It’s all races. It’s not just a social oppression, but an economic oppression right now. Anybody can identify with the struggle of three generations crammed into one house and trying to keep their dreams and their identity as they move beyond their circumstances.
TNJ: What do you want audiences to come away with?
McDonald: Audiences should have an understanding of the characters‚ the situation—empathize with it and hopefully be inspired by the way that situation is resolved.