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Kwame Kwei-Armah keeps his vow to bring Center Stage national exposure

Clybourne Park (play)Colleges and UniversitiesCulturePBS (tv network)Pulitzer Prize Awards

Kwame Kwei-Armah is turning up the floodlights on Center Stage.

It's been not quite two years since the British-born playwright became artistic director of Maryland's largest regional theater. With his production of two button-pushing dramas nicknamed "The Raisin Cycle," the beams emanating from 700 N. Calvert St. are strong enough to be spotted in distant places, from the Big Apple to the Badger State.

Articles about the cycle, in which both plays run in repertoire and have the same casts, have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The BBC even sent a camera crew to Baltimore.

That's partly because Bruce Norris, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Clybourne Park," and Kwei-Armah, who penned "Beneatha's Place," have differing perspectives on race relations in America. Their passionately held views have sparked a provocative debate.

Center Stage is even on the radar of the heir to the British throne. "The Raisin Cycle" came up during a conversation last week between Kwei-Armah and the Prince of Wales.

"When I met first Prince Charles last fall, he asked when he could next see one of my plays," says Kwei-Armah, who received the Order of the British Empire last December.

"I was invited back last week to meet with him and [wife] Camilla at a reception in St. James Palace. I told him, 'Your Royal Highness, I have your ticket ready for "Beneatha's Place." I can personally escort you back to Baltimore.' He said he had a little engagement with the opening of Parliament, but that he'd see what he could do."

In addition, finishing touches are being put on an hourlong television special that will be part of PBS' fall arts festival. Cameras will go behind the scenes to capture the making of both plays in the cycle.

Donald Thoms, who is PBS' director of programming, said the 2011 festival drew nearly 20 million viewers over six weeks. Typically, Center Stage sells about 100,000 tickets a year.

So when " 'A Raisin in the Sun' Revisited' is broadcast at 9 p.m. Oct. 25, it will represent a quantum leap in the size of the troupe's audience. The television special is the most significant national exposure Center Stage has received since 1997, when the homegrown musical "The Triumph of Love" transferred briefly to Broadway.

"One of my goals is to get people across the country to start paying us some attention," Kwei-Armah says. "When I came to Baltimore, Center Stage was not getting the national recognition that it deserves.

"Our production of 'The Raisin Cycle' is starting a dialogue that America seems to want to listen to. I don't see it as a duel. It's more of a conversation."

Thoms is on Center Stage's board of trustees, and his daughter, Tracie, an actress, has starred in the troupe's productions. In 2001, she even portrayed Beneatha in "A Raisin in the Sun," Lorraine Hansberry's pioneering work about the shattered dreams of a black family that inspired "The Raisin Cycle."

But Thoms said the idea to feature Center Stage and the cycle originated not with him, but with a Florida-based production company.

"They came to me with the pitch," Thoms says. "Center Stage is one of the companies people are starting to talk about. The vitality that Kwame generates is quite amazing. We're becoming part of the national landscape."

Hansberry's eloquent saga follows a black family in mid-20th-century America. The Youngers pin their hopes for a better life on their plans to move out of their crumbling and cramped apartment and into a small house in a middle-class neighborhood.

"Clybourne Park," which won the Triple Crown of theater awards (the Tony, its British equivalent, the Olivier, and the Pulitzer Prize) is as cool and acerbic as "Raisin" is emotional and warm. It's scabrous, outrageous, inciting — and riotously funny.

The first act takes place immediately before "Raisin's" opening curtain; a white couple horrify their community association by selling their home to the Youngers. The second act jumps forward 50 years. A yuppie white couple buy the same home, located in what has become a struggling African-American neighborhood. Their plans to raze the graffiti-strewn house and replace it with a McMansion are met with barely veiled hostility by their black neighbors.

"I was raised in an exclusive, white enclave of Texas where, by design, we only encountered different-looking people in the form of domestic help," Norris writes in an email.

"Unlike the Youngers, the people I grew up among didn't nobly struggle to overcome the desperate odds society had rigged against them. We were the ones rigging the system, using money and influence to systematically disadvantage others. Whereas Lorraine Hansberry wrote to celebrate the nobility of her people, I wrote about my people, who I don't consider worthy of such high praise."

Despite the popularity of Norris' comedy, for a long time, Kwei-Armah didn't want to stage it in his theater.

"I think 'Clybourne Park' is brilliant," he says. "What Bruce does rather marvelously is to be an equal-opportunity insulter. He breaks the bounds of political correctness to start some very interesting discussions. But I have issues with some of the connotations in this play."

In particular, he's troubled that Norris' Clybourne Park is a solidly middle-class neighborhood when white people live in it but a slum after black people move in.

"I don't think that Bruce in any way meant to do this," Kwei-Armah says, "but in the first act, someone says, 'If you let the blacks into this community, they will destroy it.' And by Act Two, that prophecy has indeed come true. The two young people who are going to rebuild it are white. The connotation is that whites build and blacks destroy."

Norris disagrees with Kwei-Armah's interpretation. If urban neighborhoods have deteriorated, he says, it's a consequence of a social system in which white people control the money and power.

"You can't escape the fact that when a community becomes poorer, it looks different," he writes.

"When white flight happens, people withdraw not only themselves but their money. … And when you collectively withdraw money and support from a system, that system will collapse."

In addition, Kwei-Armah also was rankled by two powder-keg jokes in "Clybourne Park's" second act that insult black men and white women in turn. The jokes, which Norris carefully prepares the audience to hear over the course of several minutes, invariably bring down the house. (Both are far too offensive to be reprinted in this — or any other — newspaper.)

What irks Kwei-Armah is that only the joke targeting black males is allowed to stand unrebutted. As he puts it: "After the jokes are told, there are three lines in a row where the woman says, 'At least I have the intelligence to put myself through law school.' But the black man doesn't get any lines of his own, and I think that carries the connotation that black males have low intellects."

But Norris says that Kwei-Armah's many accomplishments are the strongest possible refutation of the joke.

"Is Kwame saying I insulted his intelligence as a black man?" Norris writes.

"Given all of his career and success, he can probably take it. But hey, I did my best to insult everyone — though there are no good jokes at the expense of white men. No matter how evil the joke, white guys will just laugh and shrug and say, 'Yep, that's me.' You can't insult privilege."

Kwei-Armah initially asked three other playwrights — two African-American and one white — to write a response to "Clybourne Park." Two were unavailable, and the third said, "The fire is in your belly. Why don't you write it yourself?"

In the first act of "Beneatha's Place," the idealistic Younger daughter who yearned to attend medical school has recently married the Nigerian intellectual Joseph Asagai. The couple relocate to Africa in 1959, just as the country is in the midst of a political and social upheaval.

The second act, like "Clybourne Park," fast-forwards to the present. As the dean of social sciences at a prestigious California university, Beneatha must contend with a proposal to abolish the African-American studies concentration in favor of a new curriculum in critical white studies.

"All three plays examine issues of property and ownership," says Derrick Sanders, who is directing both works. "They're about protecting what's yours, what you and your ancestors have worked for."

Part of what's attracted interest in "The Raisin Cycle" nationwide is Kwei-Armah's pedigree as an award-winning playwright. In 2005, he created the acclaimed "Elmina's Kitchen," about the legacy of violence in a family of West Indian immigrants.

Kwei-Armah has the chops to hold his own against his two talented predecessors — though whether "Beneatha's Place" will live up to that potential is an open question.

"I must have been high on drugs when I agreed to write this play,' he says.

"I must have been bloody mad to put myself in the same ring as an iconic piece of American writing and everybody's favorite play of the last five years.

"But guess what? If it gets too bad, I've got a passport in my back pocket."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

"Beneatha's Place," currently in previews, opens Wednesday; it and "Clybourne Park" continue through June 16. Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Mount Vernon. $10-$60. centerstage.org

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