Kwame Kwei-Armah’s ambitious new play, Beneatha’s Place, premiered Wednesday night at Centerstage to a packed house awash in anticipation – the show will run through June 16 as part of “The Raisin Cycle,” which rotates performances with Bruce Norris’s 2011 Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park. Each pays creative homage to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 theater classic, A Raisin in the Sun.
In Kwei-Armah’s exciting new work, Beneatha Younger, the intellectual daughter of the Younger family in Hansberry’s play, picks up where Hansberry left her off, having relocated with her Nigerian husband, Joseph Asagai, a minor character in the Hansberry work, to his native land on the ominous-feeling day before Nigeria’s independence from British rule.
The partner play, Clybourne Park, observes the changing face and fortune of a Chicago house over fifty years’ time — the very same house that the Younger family in Hansberry’s Raisin struggles to purchase and move into — blasting a sadly familiar back-story of white flight and frightful economic decline against an up-front, in-your-face talk-fest built of raw and controversial dialogue about race and class. Clybourne Park, which opened last month, also runs through June 16. The show features several of the lead actors from Beneatha’s Place. Both plays are directed by Derrick Sanders.
Other theaters have presented A Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park in Raisin-consciousness-raising tandem, but Kwei-Armah didn’t want to end his theater’s dialogue with Norris’s ultra-popular play. He believed he had something to add.
“I find Clybourne Park to be a brilliant play, all that we want a modern play to be — a magnificent catalyst for a debate,” Kwei-Armah told The New York Times. “However — and I don’t think Bruce set out to do this — but connotationally, the play says that whites build and blacks destroy.”
Describing his writing process in a Centerstage press release, Kwei-Armah explained his motivation expansively, if less lively than above: “As a playwright of color, even in Britain, the legacy of Lorraine Hansberry and A Raisin in the Sun looms large for me. I may have seen the play more often than any other. In writing my own encounter with her seminal saga, I felt drawn to explore the nature of identity, community, and what it means to become a leader.”
I caught Kwei-Armah’s play opening night and plan to see Clybourne Park soon. In case the thought of catching two deep-thinking works back to back sends you running for the remote, I’m pleased to present three reasons you ought not let this double-cycle pass you by.
Okay, one: “The Raisin Cycle” is an important event. For Kwei-Armah to create a second echo to Hansberry takes guts…and the show itself displays more than that: He’s got vision, a real reason to, well, raise “Raisin” awareness anew. Back to back with Clybourne — which was penned by a white playwright, incidentally — Kwei-Armah’s play walks the talk he voiced in The New York Times. The double shot of these works is bound to connect theatergoers’ voices, and cause crackling electricity beyond Baltimore. Not only has the national print media been in a stir over the spectacle, but PBS plans to air a 60-minute special following the process of mounting “The Raisin Cycle.” It will be broadcast nationally on Friday, October 25, as part of the PBS Arts Fall Festival 2013.
Second, the actors are stellar. They’d have to be good as gold to perform in two intense plays during the same month. Beneatha is played exceptionally by Jessica Frances Dukes; she also plays Francine/Lena in Norris’s play. While the full cast is terrific, it’s Frances Dukes who carries Kwei-Armah’s show, playing a young bride in act one, and, in act two, which takes place 40 years later, a college prof matron version of herself, wearing thick dreads and walking differently with a natural slowness and aching grace.
Third reason: Clybourne Park is beloved and award-winning. And Beneatha’s Place is likely a hit in the making. The first act moves bicycle-easy with such breezy wit and action-packed surprise. My playwright friend and I agreed that Kwei-Armah’s lines often entertained us like a fun sitcom while the subject matter challenged, moved, and engaged. Act two, when Beneatha, now a dean of African-American studies at a California university, returns to Nigeria, moves with heavier cargo – the vehicle’s slower. Beneatha must contend with a white humanities faculty over who owns black studies, and whether race should even be studied any longer. This latter conversation feels more academic and, therefore, distant from Hansberry’s hand, but that’s not necessarily a negative. These three playwrights’ dialogue with one another and with us is ongoing today and will be well into tomorrow.