BALTIMORE — Of all the nerve! Kwame Kwei-Armah, Center Stage’s exuberant artistic director, believes theater is such a vital aspect of the culture that a Pulitzer Prize-winning play on the sensitive subject of race deserves to be answered — with another play.
Where did he get such an idea? Not, surely, in this country, where theater practitioners tend to tiptoe gingerly around each other’s work, like exhausted babysitters afraid of waking the kids. Oh, of course: Kwei-Armah is an Englishman, brought up in a land where, legend has it, a playwright’s words really do matter, that what pours out of his or her imagination is worth a provocative follow-up in print or onstage — or in any case, out in public.
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.)
This violence-racked new Old World isn’t the promised land Beneatha envisioned; its paradoxes are absorbingly and horrifically revealed under Derrick Sanders’s nimble direction. It’s when the play settles in Act 2 into a debate among scholars about intellectual turf and the future study of racial issues in America that the aptly titled “Beneatha’s Place” downshifts into something closer to static polemics.
The faculty meeting is convened by the widowed Beneatha — now a world-renowned social anthropologist who has held on to the house in Lagos — to decide whether the college’s African American studies major should shift its focus to “Critical Whiteness Studies.” Her department, it turns out, is of little interest to black students anymore. Even the chairman of African American studies (James Ludwig) is white. Questions of race and identity as filtered through a black lens are too “20th century,” Beneatha’s white colleagues contend. Vital now, goes the argument, is to engage a topic relevant to students: “the study of white privilege.”
Have we, or have we not, made progress toward a post-racial society? The points of view on this loaded subject are spelled out with appealing tartness, and the arcane politics of faculty life are illuminated wryly as well. But the platform Kwei-Armah resorts to feels a little predictable — anathema to a play that wants to surprise us with its nuanced thesis.
Set designer Jack Magaw’s rendering of the front rooms of Beneatha’s place serves the production efficiently, especially after a dusty sheet is withdrawn to reveal Joseph’s well-preserved assortment of hideous trinkets. Hudson is fine as both Joseph and the entitled rich junior faculty member on Beneatha’s staff, and Jenna Sokolowski provides a funny turn as a clueless missionary wife, showing Beneatha how electric lights and flush toilets work.
Kwei-Armah deserves plaudits, too, for showing audiences how the conversation in one theater can extend into another. Though “Beneatha’s Place” leaves an impression that a useful dialogue has digressed into a lecture, let’s hope that others adopt this playwright’s impulse to keep the talk flowing.
by Kwame Kwei-Armah. Directed by Derrick Sanders. Set, Jack Magaw; costumes, Reggie Ray; lighting, Thom Weaver; sound, Elisheba Ittoop; hair and wigs, Gregory Bazemore; dramaturg, Gavin Witt, dialects, Evamarli Johnson. With Beth Hylton, Jenna Sokolowski, Jacob H. Knoll. About 2 hours. Through June 16 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Visit centerstage.org
or call 410-332-0033.