A sturdy translation of Lorraine Hansberry’s historic 1959 play (the first staged on Broadway by a black female writer), the latest “A Raisin in the Sun” incarnation finds first-time screen director Kenny Leon and leading cast members reprising their work from the smash 2004 Broadway revival. Strong performances and a brisk pace downplay the original script’s more dated, preachy aspects in quality telefare (debuting on ABC Feb. 25) that should have an educational afterlife.
A Southside Chicago tenement flat is crowded home to chauffeur Walter Lee Younger (Sean Combs), his housemaid mother Lena (Phylicia Rashad), collegiate sister Beneatha (Sanaa Lathan), long-suffering wife Ruth (Audra McDonald) and son Travis (Justin Martin).
Walter hopes to boost his pride, strained marriage and the family’s fortunes by investing the $10,000 life insurance check Mama received from the death his father in a dubious business venture. But Mama has other ideas for the money, especially when she learns Walter’s plan involves opening a neighborhood liquor store.
Meanwhile, sharp-tongued Beneatha, who plans on going to medical school, lets spoiled rich kid George (Sean Patrick Thomas) take her out occasionally while she experiences a reciprocated infatuation with Nigerian language tutor Asagai (David Oyelowo), whose attentions have put her on an Afrocentric jag.
Eventually the Youngers get an opportunity to move from their depressing ghetto digs into a nice, roomy house of their own — albeit in a middle-class district where they’d be the first black residents.
News of their impending arrival promptly brings a visit from “welcoming committee” rep Mr. Lindner (John Stamos), whose mission is in fact to ward them off. (This plot strand was reportedly based on the experiences of Hansberry’s own family.)
Marquee lure Combs was considered the weak link on stage. But while he may lack the experience and technique to project to the second balcony, he’s more satisfactory — a tad facially inexpressive, but otherwise hitting the right notes — under the camera’s intimate gaze. Other thesps, particularly the laureled three female leads and charming Oyelowo, are terrific.
No one will mistake this well-produced but inevitably dialogue-driven piece for pure cinema, but Leon and adapter Paris Qualles open up the play just enough to avoid the usual stage-to-screen claustrophobia.
Mervyn Warren’s score is a bit more earnest and old-fashioned than would be ideal for this essentially faithful yet refreshed take on a dramatic golden oldie.