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.