Karen Ocamb

Gay Producer Craig Zadan on "A Raisin in the Sun"

Filed By Karen Ocamb | February 25, 2008 5:53 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Entertainment, Marriage Equality, Media, The Movement
Tags: Craig Zadan, gay experience, Sean Combs

Let's be honest: most people will probably tune into ABC's drama "A Raisin in the Sun" tonight to see if Sean "P Diddy" Combs can act. He can. In fact, the entire cast is achingly brilliant. Check out the excellent New York Times review.

109063_D_036.jpgAnd with the 40th anniversaries of the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy coming up, and the new "I have a dream" candidate Barack Obama trying to turn a political campaign into a movement for social change, many might think that the dream deferred - the "raisin" of the title from black gay poet Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem" ("What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?") - is outdated.

It's not. Racism is still rampant, the film's gay co-producer Craig Zadan points out. So is homophobia and the closet - one of the subtexts of the original play written by African American lesbian Lorraine Hansberry.

Lorraine Hansberry "is one of the most famous lesbian playwrights who nobody knew was a lesbian," Zadan told me by phone as he drove to a press conference with Combs at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

RaisinSunDay13_02633.jpgOf course, Hansberry is now famous among African American LGBT people. But in her time - especially in 1959 when "Raisin in the Sun" became the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway - Hansberry qualified as the kind of woman artist Virginia Woolf talked about in her famous 1928 Cambridge lecture, "Shakespeare's sister."

All these elements - racism, sexism, and homophobia - occurred to Zadan and his producing partner Neil Meron (also openly gay) at Storyline Entertainment when they saw the revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" on Broadway with the same cast that's in the ABC movie. The producing partners have a long history of consciously using diversity in theme and casting.

Zadan explained the process by which they brought the play to television and Hansberry's gay subtext.

Neil and I have been drawn to movies that fall into three distinct groups: One is musicals, which we took upon ourselves to try to bring back when nobody was doing musicals; the second is bio-pics. When no one was doing bio-picks, we on TV, we did Judy Garland, the Beach Boys, the Reagans - a whole lot of biographical things; and the third - social and political films like "Serving in Silence," "What Makes a Family," and "Wedding Wars," which are gay and lesbian stories. We're always developing more, looking for more social/political stories.

We went to see the revival when it opened a couple of years ago and we were just blown away by it. We realized that Sean Combs made it feel contemporary. The audience was compromised of the youngest people we've ever seen at a play. The place was packed with Caucasians and African Americans - but kids and families. We'd never seen an audience like that ever on Broadway for a straight dramatic play. And they went nuts. They went to see it - maybe - because of Diddy - but they came away having had that experience of this piece with that cast. And we were determined at that point that we wanted to turn it into a movie.

Luckily our deal is at Sony and luckily Sony [Columbia Pictures} made the original "Raisin in the Sun" with Sidney Poitier. So we lucked out. We went to them and everybody embraced it. And then we went to Steve McPherson [president of ABC Entertainment] and we didn't even get the words out of our mouth and he jumped up and said, 'Go make it now.' He immediately understood how important the story was and with that cast. He said, 'You get that cast - go make the picture.

Unfortunately it took us two years because those actors - Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan, Sean Combs - are so busy with plays and movies and concert tours. It took us two years to coordinate schedules.

Finally, last year they all said to us, 'OK, we have between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve - so we'll give you that.' We were freaking out because we were still shooting "Hairspray," we were about to start shooting "The Bucket List" - so we said, 'You know what - it's really hard to pull this off right now. But we're not even going to think about it. We're just going to pull it off.

So we immediately set up production - in many cases working seven days a week - because we had to finish in that tiny, tiny window.

We made it happen in Toronto because we were finishing "Hairspray" In Toronto and we couldn't leave the city.

We finished the movie and then Neil and I edited it very quickly. But ABC said, 'You know what - this is too important. We can't throw this on the air. Work with us - be patient and let's give it a coveted time slot.'

And everybody was like, 'We want to put it on now.' They said, 'No - trust us.' We said, 'OK.' They basically said, 'We think we should hold it until next year and put it on the night after the Oscars so we can promote it during the Academy Awards,' which is of course the largest audience watching ABC all year. So we used last night as a platform and we're on tonight.

But Neil and I - when we saw it we said, 'This is very, very important. The truth of the matter is - when we look at things - every movie we do - no matter what the subject matter is - we go to the universal theme of family. We always go to that because if the movie is about family, then any audience can relate to it. We feel that this one - more than just about any of them - is about what happens to a family falling apart and disintegrating and pulling itself back together again.

We felt it was a very important African American story, a very important story about racism. Some people said, 'Oh - this is 1959.' And we said, "Yes - but what about Michael Richards [profusely using the "n-word" during a stand up routine at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles} and Don Imus [who got briefly kicked off the air for calling the Rutgers Women's Basketball Team "napped headed hos"] and what about Jena - that town where they hung nooses? So everything going on around us was all about blatant racism.

And then on top of all that - out of the blue - came Barack Obama, which we didn't anticipate. So we felt there was this amazing story that needed to be told today because racism is rampant in America and needs to be dealt with - and dealt with not standing on a soapbox preaching but by moving people to tears and breaking their hearts - that's how you reach people.

But that jumps off to another point: whenever you deal with an issue of minorities, you also deal with gays and lesbians - and especially here with a play by an African American lesbian playwright - it became very, very important to us to tell this story.

We think there are some subliminal things going on that if you watch the movie. You get into these people's lives and you are as moved as we were by their story and by the actors. We think people will get it since it deals with minorities, it deals with race, it deals with prejudice, it deals with everything in the world today.

What I found particularly interesting was that beyond racism are other prejudices. You have everybody trying to hush up about the fact that [Hansberry] was a lesbian playwright. I think part of it comes from the fact that she had a heterosexual marriage. I'm sure it was a loving relationship and I'm sure they cared about each other a great deal. But the point is - when that marriage came to an end, we found out where her heart was.

{Hansberry] wrote a lot of lesbian political stories in different publications and at that time signed it "LH." So she was willing to write constantly about the gay and lesbian cause but at the same time, she was never willing to sign her real name to it. Talk about the closet - I think that's amazing.

It is very, very important that people understand that you can tell different kinds of stories and they do related to gay and lesbian issues - especially when you know the people behind them.

hansberry2(2).JPGLorraine Hansberry was clearly writing from the gay experience. The character that Senaa Lathem plays is the Lorraine Hansberry character. She represents Lorraine. If you look at the ideas and you look at what she had to say and how outspoken she is and how she's breaking traditions and breaking rules and being rebellious and experimenting - you can look at that very clearly as her exploring her lesbianism, from a political point of view. Even though she's talking about other things, beneath the surface you can see what she's really talking about. So I think if you watch the movie and you know that Senaa Lathem is playing Lorraine Hansberry's character, expressing Lorraine's point of view - you then start to see the ramifications of the gay and lesbian experience screaming to come to out.

She was so prescient that she was telling us about the Women's Liberation Movement, the gay and lesbian movement and the civil rights movement - before these movements happened. She was a young girl. How could somebody 27 years old have the insight to understand - it's one thing if she wrote a trilogy or if she wrote 10 plays - but in one play to express all of those issues and values? It's astonishing.

And we're so use to writing where every so often there is a great line. Not in this - almost every line counts. And if you understand the subtext of what she's really saying, you realize how political and powerful her message is. So any gay or lesbian viewer would get so much out of it and understand how deeply and how powerful and how emotional and how ahead of her time she was; it took a lesbian to tell the world that the world was changing.

"A Raisin in the Sun" airs tonight on ABC from 8:00pm to 11:00pm Eastern.


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Michael Bedwell | February 25, 2008 7:20 PM

Lordy, lordy, the shallowness of even the most well-intentioned people. Zadan claims, “She was so prescient that she was telling us about the ... the gay and lesbian movement and the civil rights movement – before these movements happened.” “Raisin” was written in 1956. Among countless examples that illustrate the sorry ignorance of this statement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott had started the year before, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Morgan v. the Commonwealth of Virginia which outlawed segregation in interstate travel occurred in 1946. Gay black civil rights icon Bayard Rustin had participated in test rides through the South which resulted in his being arrested and beaten by police.

The Mattachine Society held their first meeting in 1950, and the Daughters of Bilitis the year before “Raisin” was written, not to mention much earlier efforts in this country and Germany. Hansberry, in fact, joined DOB in 1957, two years before “Raisin” was first produced on stage. A 1957 letter of thanks from her, signed “L.H.N.,” and looking for back issues was published in their periodical, “The Ladder.” One of her letters was ahead of its time, calling for an end to “lecturing … about how to appear acceptable to the dominant social group. … One is oppressed or discriminated against because one is different, not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad.’ ”

An even greater knowledge gap appears in his apparent failure to understand that Hansberry wasn't simply writing from her own feelings as a closeted lesbian, or 50s feminist, or even general experiences as a woman of color—she was writing from the perspective of a real "blacks move into white neighborhood" horror—her own family when she was 8 [which resulted in a Supreme Court decision regarding due process].

From her posthumously published, "To Be Young Gifted and Black":

"25 years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation's ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house… My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German [L]uger [pistol], doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court."

For those familiar with Ruby Dee, who was nominated at 83 for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar this year, she won a National Board of Review award for playing the role in the 1961 film that she'd originated on stage of Ruth Younger, Poitier’s wife, played in this revival by Audra McDonald.

I’ll believe Mr. Combs is up to his role when I see it, but even if he is, I urge everyone to rent the 1961 film which starred the original Broadway cast—not just for Poitier’s powerful, moving performance, but for the shattering performance of Claudia McNeil playing his mother [Phyllis Rashad’s role tonight]. If the climactic scene where she talks about his father,

“I seen him...night after night, come in. And he'd look at the rug, and he'd look at me. The red showing in his eyes......and the veins moving in his head. I seen him grow old and thin before he was 40. Working and working and working...like somebody's old horse. Killing himself! And you...You give it all away in one day!”

doesn’t rip your heart out then you don’t have one.

Watch tonight’s production, then compare it to these performances from the film, then see the whole 1961 version on DVD.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40HmkyuIO-0

Michael - Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I hope folks follow your advice and see both films and read Hansberry's book.

As you may know, the National Black Justice Coalition (to which I link in the blog) features notable LGBT African Americans every February during Black History Month - but not everyone knows about this service. The intention of my piece is to consider the gay sensibility behind this remarkable story.

Thanks.

Michael Bedwell | February 25, 2008 8:48 PM

You're welcome, Karen, and thank you for drawing everyone's attention to the broadcast of this revival. Alas, I wasn't mature enough when I first saw the 61 film to get the gay implications, and it was many, many years after before I learned that Hansberry was a lesbian. The attempts by some to repress that fact is a good point by Zadan. As I'm sure you know, there have been similar efforts to deny the sexuality of Langston Hughes from whose poem Hansberry got the title for the play.

"The silence surrounding black gay and lesbian lives is being meticulously dismantled. Every closet is coming down … those closets are ancestral burial sites that we rightfully claim and exhume.” - Late black gay poet Essex Hemphill

Famous people of color are not the only victims of efforts to posthumously push them back in the closet, of course. There is the American Irish Father Mychal Judge of 9/11 fame, white author Lillian Smith who was a supporter of Martin Luther King, and wrote a book on racism with the same title as the song popularized by Billy Holiday: "Strange Fruit," and legendary actor James Dean just to name a few.

And thanks to the NBJC for writing not just about historical black LGBT figures but living, contemporary ones, too. I was shocked to learn that Jason Bartlett was such a ”first.” I knew the US Congress was still shamefully white, but would have wrongly guessed that there were more high ranking African Americans in state legislatures.

So, perhaps, I was a little harsh on Zadan. In my defense, one of my favorite Audre Lorde quotes:

"The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives."

Karen - Alexander has been posting the profiles of LGBT African-Americans here on the Project every day.

Bil - you're right, of course. I should have been more specific and included mention of The Bilerico Project.

I was thinking of a number of folks I know who are not aware of NBJC and/or regularly check into this wonderful blog....with whom I communicate on several listservs...

I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed the interview though! Great post! Raisin in the Sun is one of my favorite plays.

I’ll believe Mr. Combs is up to his role when I see it ...

Sean Combs did a very creditable acting job --- I enjoyed him in the role of Walter. However, there was a layer of believability that, for me, he didn't penetrate --- instead of feeling like I was witnessing Walter in the story, I never escaped the sense that I was actually watching a man worth about $300 million playing a man who is crestfallen about being ripped off for $6500. I didn't have that problem with any of the female actors --- and the female roles were all more demanding dramatically --- but perhaps also P Diddy's ubiquitous notoriety in American culture works against his acting ambitions.

Still, I loved the chance to see Raisin in this revival, and I think Mr. Combs's greatest achievement is in having brought this revival into being. And for that, I thank him deeply, as well as producers Zadan and Meron.

P.S. Re Comment #3: I have no desire whatsoever to "deny the sexuality of Langston Hughes" --- no desire other than historical accuracy. I realize that today Hughes is commonly assumed to have been gay, but I have my doubts about this. His biographies tell of no overt, distinctly sexual or romantic, relationships with other men. It is entirely possible that he was gay only in the privacy of his own mind, and lived mostly a celibate life. It is also possible that, after his heterosexual interest in a woman in Paris as a young man, he became disinterested in romantic and sexual matters entirely. Unless someone who knew him and is still alive today has something new to say, I doubt that we will ever be able to pigeonhole his sexuality as an absolute certainty.