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BWW Reviews: Knowing Your Place - BENEATHA'S PLACE

The "Raisin Cycle" - a series of plays, programs and discussions inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's "Raisin in the Sun" - continues its run with Center Stage Artistic Director and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah's "Beneatha's Place," which follows on the heels of Bruce Norris' "Clybourne Park."

Like "Clybourne," "Beneatha" is in two acts, the first taking place in 1959, the second, in the present day; both plays take place in the same setting, a home that keeps changing hands. In Clybourne, that home is a bungalow in Chicago, while in Kwei-Armah's work, the house is in Lagos, Nigeria.

Both plays occur during times of major political and civil upheaval-while the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement mark "Clybourne," it is Nigeria's struggle to achieve nationhood and freedom from British rule that colors the action in "Beneatha."

"Beneatha's Place" opens with the arrival of Joseph Asagai (Charles Hudson, III) and his wife, Beneatha Asagai Younger (Jessica Frances Dukes), clearly lifted from "A Raisin in the Sun" (where Beneatha Younger meets the young Nigerian medical student, Joseph, becomes enraptured with him and his view on life, and agrees to marry him and move to Nigeria to study medicine) in their new home in a predominantly wealthy white development. They are greeted by the previous owners, Mr. and Mrs. Nelson (Jonathan Crombie and Jenna Sokolowski), the latter mistakenly believing Beneatha to be a "primitive African native"; the scenes where she attempts to instruct Beneatha on how to turn on a light switch are particularly hilarious.

The first act explores the cost of political naiveté, as Joseph, considered a man to watch in Nigeria's new regional government, is sold out by his fellow councilmembers even as he himself considers financial support from a white business and civic leader, Daniel Barnes (James Ludwig).

Props don't always play a central role to a play, but they do in "Beneatha's Place." Upon the Asagais arrival, Joseph begins unpacking his sizable collection of racist "art," for lack of a better term, which serves as a reminder of the struggles blacks face, even in the so-called "land of the free," America. The items include a minstrel-show mask which Beneatha uses as a kind of sociological test. Wearing the mask forces one to appreciate the indignity of how a minority is visualized, what it feels like to "play a Sambo."

The second act takes us to the present day where Beneatha is now a noted professor, author, and head of the local university's department of African studies. She holds a meeting of the instructors in her department to discuss, among other things, whether the school should adopt a "Whiteness studies" curriculum.

The meeting is yet another psycho-sociological test as Beneatha -who holds an ace up her sleeve unbeknownst to her fellow professors-attempts to divine the true beliefs and attitudes of the staff.

While race is certainly at the center of this play, I find it more to be about power. Who is going to hold sway in Nigeria-- the British imperialists, the American capitalists or the native peoples? Who is in charge on the council-will it be Joseph or someone else? What power will the disenfranchised market women, whose plight (as well as the plight of the nation itself) is so eloquently described by Aunty Fola (Kim James Bey) in the first act, have in the new Nigeria? Is Beneatha's place on the university faculty due to her talents or some form of "affirmative action"? And certainly power-who truly has it, and who does not-is at the center of Beneatha's "exercise" in the second act as she proves to be a woman who "knows her place" in life and it is far different than nearly everyone around her perceives it to be.

As is typical of a Center Stage production, the performances are first rate, from Hudson's turn as the tormented Joseph and as the disillusioned billionaire's son, Wale, in the second act. Ludwig also does double duty as the admittedly gay, would-be power broker, Barnes in the first act; then the champion of "whiteness studies," who believes race no longer matters to the "younger generation," Mark Bond, in the second act. Each role is nuanced and separate, while at the same time, sharing some things in common, as both men serve as catalysts for action in both acts.

"Beneatha's Place" continues its run through June 16th. For details or for tickets, visit www.centerstage.org/cycle or call 410-332-0033.



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From This Author Daniel Collins