Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play “Beneatha’s Place” has turned legit industry heads as part of an ambitious project at Baltimore’s Center Stage, which is presenting the new title, inspired by “A Raisin in the Sun,” in rep with “Clybourne Park,” the Tony and Pulitzer-winning 2010 play that also takes its cue from “Raisin.” “Beneatha’s Place” offers an earnest and piercing perspective on race at a time that theaters are eagerly seeking product with appeal to multi-racial auds. But in its debut, it faces limitations as a stand-alone play when not tethered to the stronger and more cohesive “Clybourne.”
British born Kwei-Armah, also the a.d. of Center Stage, inventively borrows from both “Raisin” and “Clybourne” to ponder racial divisions on a global scale. From Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play he’s taken two characters, the feisty daughter Beneatha Younger and her Nigerian student boyfriend, Joseph Asagai. From “Clybourne,” he’s appropriated scribe Bruce Norris’ principal device, a focus on the action at a single home on two occasions 50 years apart. He also seeks to capture Norris’ penchant for acerbic dialogue.
But whereas Norris tackles racial issues involving gentrification, Kwei-Armah ponders more broadly what it means to be black in societies controlled by whites.
Directed by Derrick Sanders (who also helms Center Stage’s “Clybourne,” running in rep with the same cast), “Beneatha’s Place” presents its theme via two unrelated developments. In act one, the newly wedded Beneatha (Jessica Francis Dukes) and Joseph (Charlie Hudson III) move into an upscale white neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria in 1959. She is a medical student; he’s a university professor and a determined leader of Nigeria’s budding independence movement. As they unpack their belongings before a parade of curious visitors — in the process revealing Joseph’s ironic collection of blatantly racist tchotchkes (a clever bit of shock appeal) — the two are rudely introduced to the depths of racial prejudice under entrenched colonial rule.
In act two, set in the present day, an elderly Beneatha returns to the long shuttered property she curiously still owns, the knick-knacks adorning the dusty shelves. But now she is a respected dean of social sciences at a California university who is hosting colleagues for a meeting about the future of the school’s African-American studies curricula.
Her mostly white guests argue that subject is of waning interest to black and white students alike, eclipsed in importance by “critical whiteness studies.” Heated discussions on the topic unearth a vein of racial discord.
The production benefits from Dukes’ solid performance in the title role, setting a high bar for the hard-working troupe. But in its debut, “Beneatha’s Place” faces limitations as a stand-alone play: Act two is especially contrived in its setting and occasionally tedious in its message delivered by a cast of pretentious academics. Their racial debate is an extension of act one’s setup, but it’s a distant one that robs the production of flow.
One assumes the flaw can be fixed by Kwei-Armah (“Elmina’s Kitchen”), who has a gift for crisp dialogue from characters with plenty to say. Given some further development, “Beneatha” could become another solid entry in what’s billed at Center Stage as the “Raisin Cycle” of plays inspired by Hansberry’s play.
A documentary about the “Raisin Cycle” project will air on PBS Oct. 25.