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February 19, 2008 7:31:18 AM PST
When "A Raisin in the Sun" premiered on Broadway in 2004, the excitement surrounding the revival was largely generated by the stage debut of its star, the multi-hyphenated entertainment mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. Two years later, Combs is back in the mix, reuniting with Tony winners Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald and Tony nominee Sanaa Lathan for the ABC film version, which premieres Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. ET.

Combs received mixed reviews for his theater performance, but he believes he nailed it this time. "It was more about experience and an understanding of how to completely engulf yourself and become a character and really give yourself up to the to the role," says Combs, an executive producer with Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the Oscar-winning producers of "Chicago."

Working with an acting coach, Combs, who has had small roles in "Monster's Ball" and "Made," knew he had to stand on his own with his Tony-winning co-stars. "It was almost like what was going on in the house, that struggle to be heard," Combs said. "I wanted to make sure my character was heard."

Set in 1950s Chicago, the drama centers on the Younger family, who anxiously await a $10,000 insurance check - and the ensuing squabbles over how to spend it. Combs plays Walter Lee, a role made famous by Sidney Poitier.

Looking to assert his manhood and to use the money to finance his dreams of owning a business, Walter Lee finds himself at odds with his widowed mother, Lena (Rashad), his ambitious sister, Beneatha (Lathan) and long-suffering wife, Ruth (McDonald).

Director Kenny Leon said he cast Combs because "all the raw instincts were there." "This guy grew up poor," Leon said. "His dad was killed when he was three. He lived in the house with all women. He's also one of the wealthiest individuals that I know, so he's seen the other side of the dream ... What better actor to really understand Walter Lee?"

Rashad could see growth in her glamorous co-star. "What I saw was a natural progression that comes with the doing of it, with the working of it. He is a very disciplined professional," says "The Cosby Show" star, who was the first black woman to win a Tony as a leading actress.

"It was news to me," she says of the historic win for her "Raisin" role. "My question was, Well, what happened? Nobody was ever nominated before? I wondered why the reporters all had such strange looks on their faces when I entered the press room, and that question let me know."

The 1959 play was historic in its own right. "Raisin" was the first drama by a black woman produced on Broadway. "Lorraine Hansberry is one of those playwrights that sits in the company of August Wilson or Tennessee Williams," says Leon. "'Raisin in the Sun' is a specific story about this African American family but has a universal appeal for all Americans."

The original Broadway cast featured Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands and Louis Gossett, Jr. - all reprised their roles in the film two years later.

Besides the 1961 version, "Raisin" was adapted as a 1989 telefilm starring Danny Glover and Ester Rolle as Lena. All involved with the current production hope a new generation will embrace "Raisin" and its message: family is fundamental.

"Despite all the things they were going through, everybody still had a strong relationship with each other," says Justin Martin, 13, who plays Walter's son, Travis, in the film. "Any kind of family can relate to this because everybody has family problems. What's really important is sticking together."

It is the family love story, not just the race and class dynamic, that was always at the heart of the story, says Dee. "Lorraine was trying to write a play for a man struggling for his freedom, his dignity, his self-respect ... his pride, and he felt it was in buying his wife diamonds and moving into a white neighborhood," says the "American Gangster" Academy Award nominee. "He missed what pride and what being a human being is about and the loving impulses that dictate all of that."

Dee, and her husband, the late Ossie Davis, supported the "Raisin" revival. "She came to the play like three times," says Lathan. "She came backstage and was so encouraging. But we had several people who had seen the original production and they were just amazed at how the play still works ... but in a different way."

Emmy winner Paris Qualles ("Tuskeegee Airmen") adapted the television script from Hansberry's unpublished screenplay "Raisin" - which was ultimately not used for the 1961 film. (Hansberry died four years later at 34 from cancer.)

Bridging the past and present was important to Leon, who consulted the late Lloyd Richards, the play's original Broadway director. "We all realized that we wanted to be a part of history and wanted to be part of carrying the baton," says Leon.

Combs even invited Poitier to lunch to "get his permission," he says. "It's like if somebody came and did 'Scarface.' They should at least put in a courtesy call (to Al Pacino). So I called him up and he was honored and he told me to do it my way."

--- On the Net: www.abc.com

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