In the eight years since I moved to New York City, I have seen dozens of Broadway and off-Broadway shows. Of those dozens, I’ve paid to see fewer than six. Even before I became a part-time theatre critic, I got “comped” into most shows; either I knew someone working on the show or I knew someone who knew someone working on the show. Seeing theatre in New York is oppressively, offensively expensive and I don’t make enough money to justify the purchase of a Broadway ticket unless seeing the show is crucial to being a cultured New Yorker. Those shows are Events. I partly need to be able to talk about Events at dinner parties and partly want to be able to brag about having seen them when my hair is white and my companions are young. After seeing Jessica Lange in A Streetcar Named Desire, Jack Kroll, the late, great theatre critic at Newsweek, told his assistant, “Jessica Tandy was better.” Someday, I hope I get to say, “Take Me Out! That shower scene. Well. Those cocks bounced around the stage like coked-up Muppets.”
Try as a producer might, Events are hard to come by. For every Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz (jaw-droppingly good, a revelation), there are fifteen Ashley Judds in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (jaw-droppingly bad, stomach-churning). This summer’s Event was A Raisin in the Sun, starring Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, Sanaa Lathan and—duh—Sean Combs, better known as P. Diddy, Puff Daddy and the guy who was banging J. Lo before Ben Affleck got a crack at her. Everyone and their mother had something to say about the P. Diddification of Broadway:
“He was great, they were better.”
“He was a joke, but they were good.”
“His is the most cynical casting decision of all time.”
“The set was amazing.”
And I couldn’t get a fucking ticket. I was not invited to review the show, and its run was sold out. Connections? I knew more people associated with this show than any other. But I have, um, “issues” with the show’s lead producer, David Binder. We were romantically involved for three and a half years and it ended badly. It was my fault. I was immature, and I have commitment issues.
But that’s another column. This column is about A Raisin in the Sun, which I wanted to see long before it became an Event. Through a complex series of events that only a wacky planet-star-asteroid alignment could bring about, David wrangled the rights to do the first Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play since the seminal 1959 Event starring Sidney Poitier. Then we broke up. I sent David a nice email when Combs got cast. And I sent David flowers on opening night. I got a thank you note, but no ticket. I really wanted to see his show—and not for any schadenfreudian reason. I wanted David to succeed because his love for the theatre comes from such a pure place: He thinks theatre should be a popular art form. Unfortunately, I was not popular with David’s friends, who controlled the tickets. Either they hated me or didn’t want to lose their jobs (or lives) by comping me. So, after waiting until the show had gone Event and won two Tonys, I sucked in my gut and asked the only one of David’s friends who still speaks to me for a “house seat,” which means that I had to pay $100. I repeated “tax deduction” over and over again while my credit card got rung up.
This revival of Raisin was not destined to be an Event. A bunch of people were appalled that Sean Combs was cast as Walter Lee Younger, a role that many people seem to think is the Hamlet of African-American theatre. Sean is arguably a good rapper and inarguably a good music producer, but his acting, prior to Broadway, consisted of two small roles in Monster’s Ball and Made. He was okay in both, but there are some famous and rather good black actors out there—Jamie Foxx and Will Smith, for instance—who could have been cast and who would have pleased the theatre snobs and the critics. The latter group responded to Combs dismissively. Ben Brantley, the erratic-at-best lead critic for the New York Times, compared Combs to Madonna in Speed-the-Plow: “He comes across as smaller than you might expect.” The AP: “Combs is not a nuanced performer.” Variety: “He is simply not up to the role’s considerable demands.” The New York Post, probably thinking it would piss off artsy liberals, wrote, “Believe it or not—[he’s] pretty damn good.”
And the snobs? When one explained to me why he refused to see Raisin, he mocked Combs’ diction. You know, because Combs grew up in a black neighbourhood and sounds … black. And this guy was active in the Democratic Party and had played Karl Lindner (the lone white person in the play) in high school. Then there was the sixteen-year-old theatre snob who sat next to me at the show: a small, pudgy girl with short, spiked hair and wide, wide eyes. She was not a fan of hip-hop. In fact, she also mocked the bad language of rappers. I would have expected a sixteen-year-old to be at Raisin because of Combs. But not her. Why was she so excited about Raisin? “Phylicia Rashad, of course. I mean, she was Mrs. Cosby!” (I kept my mouth shut about what it might mean that she loves the Cosbys and hates rappers.)
But it was Combs’ blackness—his hip-hoppy, unassimilated blackness—that made the show an Event. Black families who never, ever go to the theatre, not even to an August Wilson premiere or a George Wolfe extravaganza, were going to see Raisin. They were responding to this play as if it were one of the shows on the unfortunately named, God-and-vaudeville-infused chitlin’ circuit: cheers and gasps, call and response. Combs was the draw for these families, but the emotional resonance of the play, which bumped it from a hit to an Event, came from the women in the show: Rashad, McDonald and Latham. It was sneaky of David, a kind of bait and switch.
It was also dramaturgically sound. As it turns out, of the four principals, Walter has the smallest role. He is the catalyst for the drama, not its epicentre. Living under one roof are Walter, his wife Ruth (McDonald), their son Travis (Alexander Mitchell), Walter’s sister Beneatha (Lathan) and their mother Lena (Rashad). The apartment is small, cramped and ragged. It’s Chicago in the 1950s; being black ain’t easy. And Walter is restless. There is a check for $10,000 coming in the mail—his father’s life insurance policy—and he wants to use it to open a liquor store. Lena wants to buy a house and put Beneatha through medical school. As Walter conspires and has a few temper tantrums, Lena, Ruth and Beneatha express the American Zeitgeist, then and now: the struggle for individuality is hampered by capitalist and racial stratification. Basically, the women rage and burn while Walter fucks everything up. Eventually, a white man shows up and the family unites against him. Oddly, the play is almost as funny as it is moving. And Combs is a better comedian than he is an actor. When he was trying to fall apart, he turned away from the audience—he didn’t want us to see him not cry. But when Walter and Beneatha were mimicking African dancing, gyrating around the stage, on the kitchen table, driving Ruth nuts, Combs was having fun, as loose in his role as Lathan was in hers. But you always knew that it was Sean Combs, superstar rapper, on stage. Lathan, McDonald and Rashad all disappeared into their characters; they were not performing, they simply were. The contrast was at times a little frustrating; I was unable to be totally absorbed into the play, to become the wallpaper, or even the fly on the wallpaper.
But you are never totally absorbed into Events. You are too aware that you are there, that you are seeing P-Fucking-Diddy, Hugh-Sweet-Jesus-Jackman, Jessica-Holy-Shit-Tandy, David’s-Goddamned-Show. These are the reasons that you are there, and you know it. When a star is involved, the transformative emotional experience that the best shows provide is always a secondary matter. Because of that, I didn’t expect to be riveted by the play, to find my heart breaking right along with Lena’s, to feel Ruth’s exhaustion, and Beneatha’s anger. I even found myself leaning forward, elbows on knees, desperate for what was next.