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Center Stage premieres 'Beneatha's Place,' Kwei-Armah's answer to 'Clybourne Park'

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

4:19 PM EDT, May 17, 2013

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The multifaceted issue of race continues to cling to this country. Every sign of progress in relations seems to come with an opposite move, so that it often seems as if little has ever really, fundamentally changed since the age of Jim Crow, or even Reconstruction.

There is much in this black-and-white vortex for playwrights to mine. I’m not sure if anyone will ever demonstrate that more movingly than Lorraine Hansberry did in 1957 with her incisive drama “A Raisin in the Sun,” but it sure is interesting to see what happens when others try.

Two writers have taken “Raisin” as a starting point.

Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” which earned a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, quickly carved a foothold in the contemporary repertoire after its premiere three years ago. And now comes Kwame Kwei-Armah’s “Beneatha’s Place,” a bold and funny play receiving a handsome premiere production at Center Stage, where the playwright is also artistic director.

What makes Kwei-Armah’s venture all the more intriguing is that it is was inspired by Hansberry and Norris — in the latter case, you might even say provoked by.

“Clybourne Park,” which is also on the boards in a ripping production at Center Stage, paints a two-era story of the white-neighborhood house bought by the black family at the end of the Hansberry classic.

Kwei-Armah has spoken of his admiration for the Norris play, but he has also expressed disappointment with what he views as implied conclusions in “Clybourne Park” that a black neighborhood will inevitably decline and that black men are not up to par intellectually with whites. Norris, it must be noted, disagrees with his fellow playwright’s interpretation.

When Kwei-Armah designed his first full inaugural season at the company’s helm, he envisioned the plays talking to themselves by the end of it, and that’s essentially what’s happening now, as the two pieces in what is boiled as “The Raisin Cycle” run in repertory.

Audiences cannot help but get into the conversation, too, and my guess is that intermission chitchat is more animated and substantive than ever at Center Stage these days.  

Kwei-Armah’s work focuses on Beneatha Younger, the character in “A Raisin in the Sun” who becomes attracted to a visiting African student, Joseph Asagai, and contemplates moving to Nigeria with him as the play ends.

The setting for Act 1 of “Beneatha’s Place” is 1959 in a Lagos bungalow that is to be the residence of Beneatha and Asagai, recently married. The previous occupants, a white missionary couple from the States, hang around to provide a not-entirely-welcome welcome.

Asagai is something of a national celebrity, heavily involved in Nigeria’s politics as the country takes troubled steps toward independence from Britain.

Act 2 unfolds in the same location, but in our time. Beneatha, now a prominent, septuagenarian social anthropologist and dean at a major university, is back in Nigeria for a conference with her faculty colleagues.

She convenes a committee meeting at her old home, which she has not seen in ages, to consider a contentious issue — whether to supplant the school’s longtime African-American studies program, which one professor labels “20th century,” with a newer trend in academia, “critical whiteness” studies.

You can’t miss Kwei-Armah’s method of using the same structure as “Clybourne Park,” offering some of the same thematic parallels, even having a ghost pop up at the end — sincerest form of flattery, and all that. You can also imagine the fun he must have had taking little swipes at the other play, right down to letting Beneatha repeat one of the racist jokes from Act 2 of the Norris script.  

If “Beneatha’s Place” were only about responding to “Clybourne Park,” it would have marginal interest. But the new work, neatly spiced with humor, irony and history lessons, has more than enough substance in its own right.

To be sure, a few plot devices feel manipulative, or simply creak. The traumatic event at the end of Act 1, for example, can be seen coming early on; the recurring motif of a truth-telling mask has a heavy, dated feel.

None of that, however, lessens the validity of Kwei-Armah’s perspective or his mission to seek a different post-“Raisin” path, to raise the same questions as Norris, but open windows that might lead to different answers.

There’s a good deal of freshness and surprise along the way. Time and again, the playwright subtly turns things inside out or upside down.

In Act 1, a Nigerian woman, Aunty Fola, tells Beneatha the story of “the old man on the hill who saw the first white men coming from the sea,” warning his people: “One will come. Then another, then another, and each time they do, the value of our ancestral land will be reduced.”

With that single anecdote, the play makes everything we remember from “Raisin” and “Clybourne,” all the talk of threats to a neighborhood’s value and values, bubble up and collide. There are many other moments like that, when Kwei-Armah gives a firm tug on the rug, causing characters (and, I suspect, audiences) to lose their bearings for a moment, suddenly unsure of where they stand.

Asagai’s fixation on collecting hideous Jim Crow knickknacks, for example, provides a nondiscriminatory visual jolt that makes people of both races uncomfortable in each act of the play. And there’s something delicious about the passage in Act 2 when a white professor bristles at being called “boy” by Beneatha.  

Kwei-Armah has a wonderful flair for catching the awkward ways blacks and whites try to talk about race with each other, dipping their toes in it one moment, putting their feet in their mouths the next. How that pattern carries over from act to act gives the play a lot of its power.

Above all, “Beneatha’s Place” introduces multidimensional, absorbing characters whose personal journeys are worth going on the ride with, even when if we might question the destination. And Center Stage offers actors who do the work full justice (most are also in “Clybourne Park,” doing the same).

Jessica Frances Duke shines in the title role, conveying the young woman’s mix of pride and nervousness in Act 1, the senior Beneatha’s dignity and bite in Act 2. Charlie Hudson III animates the roles of Asagai and, subsequently, Wale Oguns, a wealthy Nigerian-American faculty colleague of Beneatha’s.

James Ludwig does nuanced, telling work as a wry telecommunications executive in the first act; a white African-American studies professor in the second. Kim James Bey chews the scenery delectably as Aunty Fola, while revealing an endearing depth that goes far beyond the splash of local, um, color.

Jonathan Crombie, Beth Hylton and Jenna Sokolowski round out the cast in vivid form.

As he did for “Clybourne Park,” director Derrick Sanders paces the action with a keen sense of timing. The others on the “Clybourne” team likewise come through strongly here — Jack Magaw did the appealing scenic design, Thom Weaver the sensitive lighting, Reggie Ray the evocative costumes. (The use of Lord Kitchener's 1950s calypso classic "The Birth of Ghana" provides a nimble musical thread for the production.)   

It would be cool if Center Stage produced the full, unplanned cycle someday — “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Clybourne Park” and “Beneatha’s Place,” all performed in tandem. Chances are, no matter how many years in the future such a presentation might occur, the subject matter would still be all too relevant.

"Beneatha's Place" runs concurrently with "Clybourne Park" through June 16.