A day of long rehearsals for a revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” have come to an end, and only one actor remains in the room: Sean Combs.
Combs, tired and drained, sits by a wooden table that is part of the bare-bones, makeshift set in a rehearsal room at Radio City Music Hall. All traces of the hip-hop mogul are gone — he’s without his typical diamond stud earrings, blinding watch and other remnants of bling-bling nation, and his suit looks more Kmart than Versace. Only the “God’s Child” tattoo on his neck, peeking from behind his white shirt, reminds us of the rap impresario.
And, around here, he’s called by his first name — no “P. Diddy” or “Puffy,” please.
Combs could very well be Walter Lee Younger — the frustrated, struggling father at the center of Lorraine Hansberry’s celebrated play about family, class and race. When it first debuted in 1959, the groundbreaking drama starred Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Diana Sands.
Yet Combs will have to do much more than merely look the part when he makes his debut at the Royale Theater alongside Tony winner Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad and Sanaa Lathan. Now in previews, the play opens April 26.
Combs falls under an enormous shadow: He has stepped into the role that won Poitier a Tony nomination (he lost to Melvyn Douglas for “The Best Man”) and critical acclaim when Poitier starred in the 1961 movie with the same cast.
For Combs, it will not only be his Broadway debut but his first stage role — his brief acting career has included minor parts in the movies “Monster’s Ball” and “Made.” Although he has had enormous success as a rapper, producer, record label executive, clothing designer and even marathon runner, his theatrical talent has been untested.
And he knows it.
'Even harder than the marathon'“This is definitely a huge undertaking. It’s something that has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done — even harder than the marathon,” Combs says quietly. “At this point of my life, it’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever done because it’s so intense, it’s so emotional, it’s so hard.”
But despite Combs’ inexperience, director Kenny Leon says he couldn’t think of any other actor better suited to play the role.
“I want somebody who can make me believe the three-dimensional quality to Walter Lee,” Leon, former head of the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta, says. “Walter Lee is a man who has his good side and his bad side and his wrinkles and his warts and his smooth side. He’s a smart man, he’s an intelligent man — he’s not just an angry black man. ... Sean has crafted a Walter Lee that allows you to understand the man.”
While Combs is aware of the play’s importance, he had never seen the movie version and failed to complete an assigned reading of the play when he was a teenager.
“I was supposed to read the book back in high school but I never read the book. I did the Cliff Notes,” he says, referring to the abbreviated synopsis series popular with some students.
“I couldn’t do the Cliff Notes for the play though,” he says with a laugh.
His name became attached to the revival of “Raisin” when his acting coach encouraged him to audition: “I didn’t think that I would really get the part, though.”
Leon says Combs was not only cast because of the strength of his acting, but because he would bring a new demographic to Broadway: young hip-hop fans who may not have ever seen a theater production before. Combs himself is not a theatergoer, having seen few plays in his life.
“My goal is to create the best possible production of this play in America, and at the same time, bring as a diverse an audience to this play as I can, so I think Broadway needs to be diversified,” Leon says.
Choice sparks skepticism, outrage
Although celebrities with little-to-no stage experience have been lured to Broadway to help a sagging box office, choosing Combs to take on such a revered role has sparked plenty of skepticism and outrage. Actor Omar Epps, best known for films including “Love & Basketball,” derided Combs’ casting, calling it a “stupid choice” in a recent New York Daily News article. Others have complained that Combs was chosen despite a wealth of black actors who have difficulty getting work.
Actor Anthony Mackie, currently on Broadway in the critically panned “Drowning Crow,” was quoted in a column on theatermania.com, saying, “Casting a rapper like P. Diddy, Puff Daddy, Mr. Runner, or whatever he calls himself, shows a great lack of respect to the African-American community by the African-American community.”
Combs is aware of all the criticism, and even thinks that some of it is justified. “There are so many qualified actors that are out there that could have been chosen for the role,” he says, acknowledging that many talented black actors are underused.
“That’s one of the reasons why ... I work hard. It’s definitely out of respect for the craft. I’m not, like, a musician-slash-actor. When I’m doing this I’m an actor.”
According to Rashad, Combs has become a formidable actor. Rashad starred on Broadway in “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “The Wiz” but is best known for her work as Bill Cosby’s wife in the long-running TV series “The Cosby Show.” She says that Combs has approached the work with a reverence, diligence and respect that has impressed his co-workers.
“He puts himself into the work completely — and I mean completely, for 24 hours a day. No matter what else he’s doing, his mind is engaged in this work,” Rashad says. “I’ve worked with some of the best, experienced actors who don’t work that way. He’s very intelligent. And he’s intelligent enough to know that theater is not easy.”
Still, Combs was unprepared for how rigorous the role would be.
“It’s been a total change of life for me — to be rehearsing, in rehearsals 10, 12 hours a day. (I’m) not able to use a phone — I’m a cell phoneaholic — not able to party, not able to see my friends, family, be hands on as much with some of my businesses.”
There was a report that Combs was not up to the challenge. The New York Post’s Page Six quoted unidentified sources that he had not yet learned his lines when rehearsals started.
“This guy was the first person in the cast to know all of his lines, and that was like after a couple of days,” Leon says about the allegation. “That’s totally a lie. He’s been committed and prepared every day from day one, and he’s been on time and prepared and way ahead of what he’s supposed to be.”
But no matter how prepared he is, will the omnipresent celebrity, whose wealth has become a defining characteristic of his life, be able to convince audience members that he is a poor, struggling father whose inability to provide for his family is eating away at his soul?
Combs believes he can and despite his usual bravado, he’s surprisingly noncommittal when asked whether he’ll deliver.
“I’m like you: The suspense is building to opening night to see how it’s going to be,” he says. “One thing I know is I’m always going to do my best.”
For Rashad, though, “best” has proven to be more than enough.
“When you see him you will not say he’s inexperienced. ... He delivers this person to you,” she says.
“I think that any actor who understands Walter Lee — who understands what motivates him, who understands this — is the actor that you want to have. And it turns out that he understands this.”