And so by way of that alien tradition is born “Beneatha’s Place,” Kwei-Armah’s amusing footnote of a play, an engaging if slightly underweight commentary on American racial identity. Buoyed by Jessica Frances Dukes’s rich central performance as Beneatha, the play is a follow-up to Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning seriocomedy, “Clybourne Park,” a Shavian survey of the tangled racial tensions wrought in a transitional Chicago neighborhood.
Both plays pay debts to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic “A Raisin in the Sun,” about a black family’s struggles moving into an all-white Chicago enclave. Norris’s play is set in the home of Hansberry’s Youngers before they bought it from a white couple in 1959, and then after it has been sold to another, gentrifying white couple, in 2009.
Mirroring Norris, Kwei-
Armah sets his work in 1959 and the present. The scene, however, is now West Africa, where Kwei-Armah imagines Beneatha, the daughter from “Raisin,” has gone to live with her newlywed Nigerian husband, played by Charlie Hudson III. The second act takes us back to the house in Lagos 54 years later, when Beneatha, the dean of social sciences at an American university, convenes a curriculum meeting during a visit to Nigeria by members of her African American studies department.
In its world premiere, “Beneatha’s Place” is running in repertory with Center Stage’s mounting of “Clybourne Park,” which before winning its Pulitzer had a highly successful early run at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in 2010. As a counterpoint to “Clybourne” — and for that matter, to “A Raisin in the Sun” — is the only way to fully appreciate what Kwei-Armah is after here. This speaks to the admirable novelty of the project, but also to its limitations.
After exposing the audience to his compellingly vivid portrait of a young Beneatha in Act 1, the playwright reduces her to a set of academic talking points in Act 2. Beneatha has followed her husband, Hudson’s Joseph, to Lagos to escape the racism of ’50s America, only to find other kinds of bias and corruption in a Nigeria trying to emerge from colonialism. (In an ironic touch, Joseph is a collector of minstrel masks and other types of racist American memorabilia, which he displays on the shelves of their Western-style Nigerian home inhabited previously by white American missionaries.)