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Gary Younge
P Diddy acts up in Broadway debut

First there was Sean Combs, the private school-educated middle-class boy from upstate New York.

Then there was Puff Daddy, the bad boy rapper who lost his best friend in the east coast-west coast rap wars. After that came P Diddy, the responsible friend of charitable causes, following his acquittal for bribery and gun possession.

Now he is on Broadway with an entirely new role that for once we can all be sure is fictional - Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry's classic drama, Raisin in the Sun, which opened on Monday night. To his list of achievements as singer, producer, fashion designer and businessman, Combs can now add actor.

In the play Walter Lee is an angry dreamer, frustrated with his job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white man. Younger lives with his mother, wife and sister and son in the segregated south side of Chicago during the 1950s.

"People may think they're coming to see Puffy on stage," he told the Daily News, "but they're getting Walter Lee Younger."

The New York Times' theatre critic yesterday respectfully disagreed.

The play's leading women- Phylicia Rashid and Audra McDonald - have been lauded, their male counterpart has had a rougher ride. "Mr Combs has left lots of space for Walter to grow," the review says. "Unfortunately, that space is never filled _ This Walter Lee never appears to change, in big ways or small. Happy or sad, drunk or sober, angry or placating, his evenly measured words and debating team captain's gestures remain pretty much the same."

But even the NYT gave Mr Combs' performance grudging respect. "[He] is not the wholesale embarrassment that connoisseurs of schadenfreude were hoping for," the critic concedes.

The drama critic of the Associated Press, was kinder but came away with a similarly mixed impression.

"The actor has a compelling physical presence - and he's fine in the comedy scenes _ But Combs is not a nuanced performer who can bring to life the enormity of Walter Lee's resentment, much less his eventual redemption in the evening's final scene."

Walter Lee is not only central to the play, the play is central to American drama, marking the theatrical depiction of a generational turning point in the civil rights movement.

The most famous person to play Walter Lee before Combs was Sidney Poitier, who performed it on the stage and in the film.

The title comes from a famous poem by the poet laureate of the Harlem renaissance, Langston Hughes, who asked "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"

And Combs' is not the only new face on Broadway.

Thanks to advertising on black radio stations and newspapers, Combs' presence is putting on seats young, black bums that rarely make it to the theatre.

"Sean brings to the theatre a whole new audience," David Binder, the play's lead producer, told Newsday. "Our audiences have been old and young, and 60% to 70% black."

Whether they find what they are looking for when they get there, however, is another thing. "Puffy is a brand," Miss Info from Hot 97 radio station told the New York Times.

"His name is synonymous with luxury, living large, crossing over, and kids are interested in anything he does. A lot of listeners have no idea what this play is about. They just know that P Diddy is in a play.

"But it's not about music, there are no Bentleys, it's not gangster, so some people might be disappointed."

In many ways the hot-headed and seriously conflicted character of Walter Lee suits Combs.

The last time most New Yorkers remember him on Broadway he was in a car chase with Jennifer Lopez at his side and the police in pursuit after his protege Jamal "Shyne" Barrow fired his gun at Club New York.

Combs prefers other parallels. "I wasn't always rich," he told the Bergen Record. "I wasn't always famous.

"And no matter what, I'm still a black man. I grew up in a house with women. My father was killed when I was three. I have sons. There are some parallels. But the biggest parallel is that we're both dreamers. And dreamers are gamblers."

But according to his acting coach, Susan Batson, the differences between Combs and Walter Lee have been a considerable impediment. "Failure is not in his vocabulary - and that's his problem," she says.

"When I'd say, 'What if someone came in and said they'd run off with your money," he said: 'Oh, no, no, no. It wouldn't happen. You can't ask someone like me to imagine that because I won't allow it.'"

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