By Kwame Kwei-Armah
through June 16 at Centerstage
When Kwame Kwei-Armah came to Center Stage as artistic director two years ago, he talked to anyone who would listen about "starting a conversation." He wanted his choices for the company to challenge the audience, propose questions, make people rethink their long-held beliefs and understandings.
In that sense, Beneatha's Place is the perfect conclusion to his first full season as director. The play, written by Kwei-Armah himself, is a response to Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, itself a follow-up to Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Clybourne and Beneatha's Place have been performed on alternating nights, with a shared director and (mostly) shared cast as "The Raisin Cycle."
It's an ambitious, intellectual conceit and, even if it had failed, Kwei-Armah could be praised for trying to raise the bar for our leading theater company, earning the attention of the New York Times, who wrote about the cycle, and other national media. The move is even more audacious when you consider that Kwei-Armah's play openly critiques one that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony for Best Play, and is generally considered a masterpiece.
But Kwei-Armah succeeds in starting a conversation and, although the playwrights may not choose to view their works as competitors in a war of ideas, if they were, Kwei-Armah's wins, if only by a single gesture.
Clybourne Park opens by portraying the "other side" of the transaction happening in A Raisin in the Sun: In Raisin, the Youngers, an African-American family living in Chicago's south side, use an insurance check to make a down payment on a house in an all-white neighborhood (Clybourne Park), and Karl Lindner, a representative from that neighborhood, comes with an offer to buy them out of the house in an effort to keep the neighborhood from becoming integrated.
In Clybourne, we see things from Lindner's perspective. The entire play takes place in the disputed house: In Act 1, Lindner tries unsuccessfully to convince the selling couple, Bev and Russ-whose son recently committed suicide after returning from the Korean War-not to sell. Act 2 jumps forward to 2009: The neighborhood is now all African-American, and a white couple is buying the house, contributing to its gentrification. Before long, veiled talk about race is unveiled and unvarnished and deeply ugly feelings are brought to the surface.
In interviews, Kwei-Armah was open about his problems with Clybourne. In an interview with City Paper a few months ago, he praised it for "ignit[ing] debate" but accused it of reinforcing the idea that African-Americans destroy neighborhoods. "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," he said. "I don't think Bruce set out to do that, but he left it unaddressed."
In Beneatha's Place, Kwei-Armah addresses the issue cleverly. The play is also built around Raisin's characters and is also set in one house, with two acts about 50 years apart. This time, the house is in Lagos, Nigeria, and Beneatha Younger, the high-achieving, ambitious daughter from Raisin, has married Joseph Asagai, the Nigerian medical student whose proposal she accepted at the end of that play. The country is on the verge of independence, and Asagai is a potential leader of the new government, torn between revolutionary zeal and members of his movement who want to accommodate the outgoing occupiers and enrich themselves in the process. As in Raisin, there is an envelope of money, this time offered by a mysterious white neighbor representing the business community.
The second act jumps forward 50 years, and Beneatha, now a widow and the director of African-American studies at a California university, returns to the house after a long absence with her staff of professors, on a retreat to discuss the future of the department.
While Clybourne focused on ownership of physical space, Beneatha's Place takes on ownership of history. In Act 1, the theme is driven home by Asagai's collection of racist relics from the antebellum South, collected during his time in America, crossed with colonialists' attempts to co-opt the Nigerian struggle for independence.
In Act 2 it's more precise, as Beneatha's staff debates a change in direction: One white professor, a lifelong devotee of Beneatha's work, suggests renaming the department "Critical Whiteness Studies" and teaching to the primarily white students at the university, while others, particularly a wealthy Nigerian-American faculty member, reject the idea as taking African-American history out of the hands of African-Americans.
The play is full of moments that cleverly turn the realities of Clybourne Park-and the history of American race relations-on their heads, as when an African elder recalls her elders' warnings when white people first came to Nigeria, that "the value of our ancestral land will be reduced," and when the young white professor bristles at being called "boy." The acting is uniformly terrific, with a standout performance by Jessica Frances Dukes as Beneatha.
The play succeeds at extending the crucial conversations started by Raisin and Clybourne, and starting new ones tied to memory, history, and ownership from a variety of perspectives.
If there is a problem with Beneatha's Place, it is that, as in Clybourne Park, there is so little genuine humanity across the racial divide. And while both plays try to cut through pretense and portray "real" feelings white people have about African-Americans (and Africans) and vice versa, it is in this near-total lack of humanity that both plays strike a false note.
In our daily lives, issues around race can still be fraught with tension. There is disingenuous chatter, coded language, and deep-seated prejudice, and both plays do well to ferret it out. But there is also empathy. There are feelings that transcend difference, moments of connection and understanding that break through it, and they are (almost) totally missing from these plays.
In Clybourne, the characters seem utterly incapable of truly understanding the perspective of the other. The white characters, in particular, are often portrayed as buffoons unable to empathize. And, of course, the seemingly "progressive" characters turn out to be the ones with the most deep-seated bigotry.
In Beneatha, particularly in the second act, there is at least a robust, intellectual discussion of "other"-ness and who is responsible for learning the lessons of racism. Still, there is virtually no genuine empathy across racial lines, no emotional connection, no warmth in the cold world these two plays depict.
But there is one moment, one gesture near the end of Beneatha's Place that offers one glimmer of warmth, of connection, and it elevates the play substantially.
Gary Jacobs, a white economics professor who spends much of the second act denying that he occupies a position of privilege and goes so far as to suggest that Beneatha has only achieved as much as she has because of her race, apologizes before leaving. In one of the play's most honest moments, he says, "I'm just tired of being the bad guy. It was just hard, as shitty as my life has been, to see how I've ever really had a loaded dice."
Beneatha responds with genuine warmth and understanding, reaching out and touching his arm. "I hear you, brother Gary. I hear you," she says. "No offense taken."
It's not the end of the conversation, of course, just the beginning, really. But along the way, it's good to know that we can still take a moment to have empathy for those we're talking to.