Puff Daddy on Broadway: How Diddy Do?

Let's cut right to the chase: Diddy do or Diddy not? Last night, hip-hop king Sean Combs (search) (the artist otherwise known as P. Diddy (search)) made his stage debut in the first Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking play "A Raisin in the Sun" (search) - and yes, Diddy did.

Confidently stepping into the role made famous by Sidney Poitier, Combs was - believe it or not - pretty damn good.

(Click Here for Roger Friedman's review of "Raisin in the Sun")

Admittedly, Sidney Poitier he was not - and Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Samuel L. Jackson need not shake in their boots, at least for now.

But Combs exceeded expectations as the petulant, truculent and brooding young hero, Walter Lee Younger, of Hansberry's 1959 hit - the first play about the black experience to make a solid impression on the Broadway scene.

Apart from the 1973 Broadway musical "Raisin," this was its first major New York revival since that Broadway premiere and 45 years of black history.

So Combs' much-publicized debut was not the only question when "Raisin" opened at the Royale Theatre last night.

How was the play after all these years? Does it stand up as a classic of American theater, or more simply, as a landmark in American history?

Hansberry, who died in 1965, at the tragically early age of 34, was, as her famous memoir put it, "young, gifted and black." Although she wrote much - some of it yet to be published - "Raisin" is her major legacy.

After that first night, critic Brooks Atkinson called it "a Negro 'Cherry Orchard'" - an assessment which may well prove over-generous.

The story is told with a vibrancy of dialogue that often shivers with truth. Yet some of the heroics are more soap-opera than real life, especially the crowd-pleasing ending, which while conceivable still twists too handily the earlier depiction of the characters.

Yet "Raisin" does wear well. This tale of three generations of the Younger family remains engrossing - presided over by a matriarchal grandmother, faced with the windfall of a small fortune, and with it the chance of moving from a tenement in Chicago's black ghetto to a house in a white suburb.

When Hansberry wrote "Raisin," Martin Luther King Jr. had more 10 years to live and civil rights had more mountains to climb.

Yet looking at "Raisin" today, perhaps its real tragedy is not how much the world has changed - but how much it has, for so many blacks, remained the same.

Today there are still many predominantly white suburbs in the U.S. that would not exactly welcome a black family into their midst, and many black ghettos where it might still seem oddly like 1959.

Kenny Leon's staging proves deft, swift and catches every vernacular overtone, suggesting exactly the same authenticity revealed by Thomas Lynch's setting - it's always tricky to cut a Broadway stage down to the size of a small apartment - and Paul Tazewell's spot-on period costumes.

Best of all, the performance captures just that same iridescent honesty of the original 1959 cast, frozen for posterity in the 1961 movie.

Combs' desperately well-suggested shiftless, focusless but yelping vitality is set up against a living fresco of wonderful acting.

The three women - Audra McDonald, pained and glorious as the wife; Phylicia Rashad, resilient and wise as the mother; and the flighty but determined Sanaa Lathan as the sister - all give magnificent, brilliantly interwoven performances.

All the other roles have also been cast with care and skill, including Teagle F. Bougere, as the dignified, but puzzled, visiting Nigerian student, and Alexander Mitchell, perky and irrepressible as the youngest Younger.

Then there was Frank Harts as a square sincere suitor; the stolid, heart-broken Bill Nun as a man involved with Walter Lee in a get-rich scheme; and finally, David Aaron Baker making a perfect weasel of a man from the White Housing Association offering the Youngers a bribe to forget that suburban jump.

The play was first inspired by Langston Hughes' famous poem, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?"

Perhaps for some the dream is still deferred, but the play has not dried up, and nor will it. Here is an American document of time, place and relevance.