By Bruce Norris
By Kwame Kwei-Armah
Through June 16 at Center Stage
Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun is a great play for many reasons, but one of those reasons is the light it sheds on the strains and gains of American democracy. It's the way of Americans, Hansberry points out, to have bigger ambitions than they have resources, and when two or three dreams are competing for the same, limited wealth, all the hidden fault lines of race, class, gender and age are flushed out into the open.
Hansberry brings these issues to such compelling life that her script has inspired not one but two answer plays, both of which are being presented by Center Stage this month. The first, Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park, which debuted in 2010 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011, had its official Maryland premiere April 17. The second, Kwame Kwei-Armah's Beneatha's Place, has its official world premiere May 15. The two productions, which share the same cast and similar sets, will then run in repertory through June 16. On four Saturdays and three Sundays during the run, one can see both shows on the same date.
In A Raisin in the Sun, the Youngers, an African-American family on Chicago's South Side in the 1950s, are trying to decide how to use a sudden windfall in the form of a $10,000 life-insurance check. That was a lot of money in those days, especially in that neighborhood, but it's not enough to satisfy everybody's wishes. Lena, the widow, wants to buy a house in a nicer area. Her daughter Beneatha wants to go to medical school, while her older brother Walter wants to buy a liquor store. In the midst of the bickering, Walter's wife, Ruth, can't decide if she should carry out or end her recent pregnancy. Walter makes a unilateral (and thus anti-democratic) decision with disastrous results, and Lena uses what money is left to put a down payment on that house at 406 Clybourne Street, even if the all-white neighborhood association, personified by Karl Lindner, does everything possible to dissuade her.
"Having encountered the play at a young age," Norris recalls via email, "I was acutely aware (in a distinctly all-white neighborhood) that if there was anyone in Raisin that my family and I resembled, it was of course the antagonist. Now, it's possible that the social studies teacher who showed us that film in seventh grade intended a very different message-possibly, how we are all alike and that the suffering of the Younger family was something we could all embrace. But instead I took away from that early exposure that, while I might perceive myself to be the protagonist of my own story, it is quite possible I might be the villain in someone else's. So it wasn't so much telling Karl's story that interested me, as showing the flip side of the story of heroic struggle; the story of people who don't need to struggle but rather impose that struggle onto others."
The entirety of Norris' play takes place at 406 Clybourne Street. The first act occurs at the same time as the action in Raisin in the Sun. Karl has come over to persuade the home's owners to rescind the sale to the Youngers. But Russ, haunted by the suicide of his son, who was implicated in a Korean War scandal, has no inclination to help out a neighborhood that shunned his son when he needed forgiveness. Karl points out, not without justification, that the value of their homes, the only real wealth these lower-middle-class workers have, might fall, though they are more willing to blame the incoming black families than the block-busting realtors. The white negotiators discuss the matter as if the home's black maid weren't even there. To underline this obliviousness, Karl's wife is deaf. The act is a mirror image of Raisin: limited resources, competing visions, flawed compromise.
Norris' second act takes place at the same address 50 years later. The home is in dilapidated disrepair, as if confirming Karl's predictions, and a European-American couple, represented by Karl's daughter, a lawyer, wants to tear down the house and build a new, taller building. They are negotiating a zoning waiver with the now all-black neighborhood association, represented by Lena, the fetus in Ruth's belly during Raisin, who wants to preserve the historical integrity of the neighborhood she grew up in. This time, instead of politely tiptoeing around the obvious racial issues, the characters confront those issues directly. But they do so by hurling stereotypes at each other and are no more able to reach a consensus than the folks in the first act.
"The difference is that, in the first act, the black characters aren't permitted to speak," Norris points out. "It's quite easy to speak in the polite, coded language of racial etiquette if no one is allowed to contradict you. Today we use fake openness and fake honesty but rarely get around to a frank conversation. Hopefully we can all become more un-muzzled to some extent. The most preposterous notion is the one expressed by Steve in Act 2, that he, as a white man, finds his speech unfairly restricted. No one is ever more defensive than a rich, white, heterosexual man. There's a classic bullshit bromide that people use in the South: 'Here, we all get along better because everyone knows their place.' Well, now we're all struggling to find our place, linguistically and politically. I think that's actually very good in a way, and I'd much rather be in a conversation that risked discomfort rather than complacency."
Norris never endorses the notion that Karl was right-that integration led to neighborhood decline and resegregation-but the playwright doesn't refute it either. Kwei-Armah, Center Stage's artistic director, felt that even an implied, unintentional linkage between demographic change and plunging property values needed to be confronted more directly if Center Stage were going to stage a show as skillful and provocative as Clybourne Park.
"I saw Clybourne Park in London," Kwei-Armah says, "and thought it did everything good theater should do: It ignited debate and tied into the zeitgeist. I felt there were some connotations attached to the play that I wanted to debate. In the first act, they say, 'If you let them in, they'll destroy the community,' and in the second act, the community is destroyed. I don't think Bruce set out to do that, but he left it unaddressed. If Clybourne Park is a reply play to Raisin in the Sun, I wanted to write a reply play to Clybourne Park-and to Raisin in the Sun too."
There was a problem. Center Stage is budgeted for a six-play season, and Kwei-Armah's show would be a seventh production. To solve this challenge, Kwei-Armah agreed to write a script for three white men, two white women, one black man, one black woman, and one set, just as Norris had done, so the same actors could perform both plays and the designers could use the same footprint for the set. He even hired the same director, Derrick Sanders, to oversee both productions. This, of course, presented more hurdles-for how do you tell this story from an African-American perspective when five-sevenths of the cast is white?
"There were many times I wished I had one more black character," Kwei-Armah admits. "I'd ask the staff, 'Do we have the budget if I smash the whole thing up and add different characters?' And they'd go, 'Well. . . '"
In A Raisin in the Sun, Beneatha falls in love with an African student named Asagai; at the end, she agrees to marry him, emigrate to his homeland of Nigeria, and pursue medical school there. Kwei-Armah's Beneatha's Place opens in Nigeria, where Beneatha is a med student and Asagai is a leader in the movement for independence from Great Britain. As in Clybourne Park, the second act takes place 50 years later with a similar change in language and attitudes. Beneatha is now the dean of a social anthropology department at a major university and has to defend the program from a takeover attempt. When Kwei-Armah decided to use different actresses to play the younger and older Beneathas, he invented a new character in the first act for the older actress to play. When he changed his mind and decided to use the same actress with different makeup for the two Beneathas, the new character had become too crucial to delete. Thus, he got his extra black character after all.
"In England, we have a much clearer idea of the African fight for independence than you do in America," says Kwei-Armah, who grew up in London, "because it was independence from us. Asagai raises the question of: How does one negotiate survival in a land where you're not on secure footing, in a land where you don't have ownership? I'm very interested in ownership. It's a central theme in both Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park. In the first act of Clybourne Park, the whites are saying, 'If you let the blacks in, we'll lose ownership of the community.' In the second act, the blacks are saying, 'If you let the yuppies in, we'll lose ownership of the community.' In Beneatha's Place, it's about ownership of a nation, and in the second act it's about ownership of a department and the ideas it represents. In Clybourne Park, both sides are saying, 'We're about to be invaded; how do we defend ourselves?' In Beneatha's Place, they're saying, 'We've already been invaded; how do we get back what we once owned?"