Young Vic Theatre
Kwame Kwei-Armah directs a compelling and frequently funny production of his own play about racism, politics and power.
He wrote Beneatha’s Place in response to Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, with which it ran in repertoire when it premièred in 2013 at Baltimore Centre Stage when Kwei-Armah was Artistic Director there. Like that play, it has links to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun of 1959. However, you don’t need to know those plays to understand it.
It briefly begins with a student demonstration at an Ivy League university before jumping back to 1959 when medical student Beneatha, the young daughter of the family in Raisin, arrives to start a new life in Lagos, newly married to Nigerian boyfriend Joseph Asagai, an academic active in independence politics,
They find themselves welcomed into their new home by its previous occupants, the Nelsons, a well-meaning but insultingly condescending white American missionary couple played by Tom Godwin and Nia Gwynne. This presents a satirical picture of colonialist racism and is very funny, but Nigeria is a land full of tension as colonial rule is ending. Western interests are keen to exploit its oil, despite the cost to the people of the Delta; a neighbour claiming kinship since he’s from Chicago seems to be a CIA operator offering a blatant bribe. Joseph is at risk; the place could explode in violence.
A second act sees Beneatha in the modern day, back in Lagos for a conference. She brings colleagues from the university where she is now Dean of Racial Studies to her past home to add edge as they debate their curriculum. Are their students really now bored by African American Studies? Should they launch a new course on Critical Whiteness?
This may sound more like a symposium than a drama, but though the second act has no real action, the way that the actors interact makes it is no less engaging.
Everyone except Cherrelle Skeete as Beneatha has a new role, and her sharp-eyed, self-aware young woman is no less alert so many years later, though her gait now is slower. Zackary Momoh, so full of energy as her idealist husband Asagai that sometimes you can’t keep up with him, is now the son of a petrol-rich Nigerian who seems to be her protégé. Jumoké Fashola, Aunty Fola with her warnings of danger in advice against risk in the first part, is now Professor Jones, the only other black academic on the team. Sebastian Armesto (the creepy CIA man) is now Professor Bond, Nia Gwynne Dr Banks and Tom Godwin Head of Studies Professor Jacobs.
The 2013 text has been a little updated to reflect contemporary concerns about race studiies and more recent history, but it does seems to stretch things a little that Beneatha is still in post more than 60 years after the first act and that Joseph’s collection of racist relics (golliwogs, minstrel masks and pejorative posters) still survive in their old house. But taking such poetic licence provides a backlog of history to the play's cogent argument. How we look at the past and prepare for the future can’t avoid race as an issue, and this play is determined that we don’t forget that.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton