"I have a dream."
Martin Luther King, Jr., may have been the one to give those words a permanent place in the nation's lexicon, but he's by no means the only one to whom they apply.
Dreams are universal. Usually they represent hope, but when they're continually sidetracked and deferred, they can wind up becoming a crushing burden.
The timeless story of a poor black family and its dreams is told in a new, made-for-TV movie, A Raisin in the Sun, which will air Monday at 8 p.m. on WTVG-TV, Channel 13. The three-hour movie telecast is adapted from the award-winning 2004 Broadway revival of a play originally produced in 1959.
The Broadway version of the story starred Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Louis Gossett, Jr., all of whom also appeared in a feature film version of the play in 1961.
The play's title comes from a poem by Langston Hughes called Harlem: A Dream Deferred, whose opening lines are these: "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?"
Monday night's TV movie stars the same actors who appeared on Broadway in the 2004 revival. They include, most notably, Sean "Puffy" Combs, better known as a hip-hop entertainer and music producer; Phylicia Rashad, who for eight seasons played the level-headed Clair Huxtable on NBC's The Cosby Show, and Broadway veteran and four-time Tony winner Audra MacDonald, who stars on television in the Grey's Anatomy spin-off, Private Practice.
Both Rashad and MacDonald won Tony awards for their 2004 Broadway performances.
The movie tells the story of the multi-generational Younger family, who live together in a cramped apartment on Chicago's South Side. Each of the family members has a dream. The widowed mother, Lena (Rashad), dreams of retiring from her job as a domestic for a rich white family and buying a house.
Her son, Walter, Jr. (Combs), is a frustrated chauffeur who desperately wants the chance to prove his manhood by owning his own business, a liquor store. His long-suffering wife, Ruth (MacDonald), also dreams of a real home, where their son won't have to sleep on a couch in the living room. She's expecting another child, too, but is reluctant to share the news with her husband.
Walter's younger sister, Beneatha (Sanaa Lathan), is a headstrong college student who hopes to go on to medical school, and maybe explore her spiritual roots in Africa as well.
Hopes are high for each family member as Lena awaits a $10,000 insurance check from the estate of her late husband. But when the money finally arrives, the conflicting opinions on how it should be used lead to emotional clashes within the clan.
Walter all but demands the cash to buy his liquor store, explaining to his mother that "money is life."
"Money is life?" replies a surprised Lena. "I remember a time when freedom used to be life. But now it's money? Have times changed that much?"
"It's always been about money," Walter tells her.
"In my time," Lena says, "if we could make it to the North without being lynched and still have a shred of dignity, too, that was enough."
Finally, in a Solomon-like decision, Lena opts to use a portion of the money for a down payment on a house in a nice neighborhood, with the remainder going to Walter for his business venture and Beneatha for medical school.
But happy endings don't come so easily. Walter's dream of business ownership is shattered when one of his prospective partners takes off with his money - and with Beneatha's tuition money as well.
Even Lena's dream of a real home is threatened, as the all-white neighborhood where she bought her house sends an emissary (John Stamos of TV's ER) to try to buy the house back from her. Awkwardly trying to sugar-coat the reasoning of the neighborhood's racist community association, Stamos tells the family, "For the happiness of all concerned, our Negro families are better off, they're happier, living in their own communities."
Both Rashad and MacDonald give powerful, nuanced performances, but given their track record, that's no great surprise. The real surprise here is that Combs, in his first major movie role, is able to hold his own opposite such first-rate castmates. He's convincing as an anguished young black man who longs for a shot at success in what's largely a white man's world.
The 38-year-old hip-hopper was credited with attracting a large number of younger people to see the show on Broadway, and it's reasonable to assume he'll have a similar effect on the TV version. The movie should also get a boost from being on ABC the night after the network airs the Academy Awards show, where there's bound to be plenty of promotional ads.
A Raisin in the Sun may well date back to an earlier era of race relations in this country, yet much of it still rings true today, and the story it tells is just as deeply moving and provocative now as it was nearly 50 years ago. The movie was screened last month at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, the first broadcast network TV movie ever to be accorded that honor, and at its conclusion, the audience gave it a standing ovation.
The story remains a literary classic, and it's perfect for Black History Month. For those who haven't seen it before, its airing on Monday night is an opportunity that they shouldn't pass up.