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New Centerstage play rewrites the script on race

Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director at Centerstage
Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director at Centerstage
Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of Centerstage since 2011, has been an actor, director and a broadcaster. But he says it’s his role as playwright with which he most identifies.
“If everything had to be taken away, the thing I would not want to lose is the ability to write plays,” he says. Centerstage hosted two of Armah’s plays, “Elmina’s Kitchen” and “Let There be Love,” before he joined the Mount Vernon theater in 2011.
When planning the 2012-13 season, Kwei-Armah volunteered to write “Beneatha’s Place,” which runs May 8-June 16. It runs in repertory with Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park,” part of Centerstage’s so-called Raisin Cycle.
Both plays are contemporary reactions to Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal 1959 play “Raisin in the Sun,” about discrimination against African-Americans following desegregation. Centerstage used the same company of actors in design team to produce both “Clybourne” and “Beneatha’s Place.”
Kwei-Armah recently chatted with the New York Times about the so-called Raisin Cycle plays. Here, he talks with BmoreMedia about his latest work, which questions some of the assumptions about race in “Clybourne.”
How did Beneatha’s Place come about?
When I got here, everyone said, “Are you going to do ‘Clybourne Park?’” Everyone felt the race and gentrification themes are pertinent to Baltimore. It seemed like a natural fit. In truth, I had seen “Clybourne” and I had some issues with it. I thought, why don’t we do it in rep with another play? Nearly every other theater is doing it with “Raisin in the Sun.” I thought, why don’t we push the issues forward and speak to some of the issues I had with it.
What were those issues?
I don’t mean that Bruce Norris [author of “Clybourne Park”] went out to do this in any way. We meet the family in Act 1. The premise is if you let the blacks in, they will destroy the neighborhood. At the start of Act 2, the neighborhood has been destroyed, and a young white couple comes in to gentrify and build it back up.
So it’s the white savior myth?
It’s more than the white savior myth. It’s that whites build and blacks destroy. I worry about that: white flight equals black blight, as a kind of dictum that we’ll accept.
Also there are a couple of lines in the play that question the intelligence of the African-American community. For example, there’s a line, “What’s long and hard on a black male?” And he says, “first grade.” The play is not attempting to perpetuate these things. However, I didn’t see any criticism that didn’t’ accept those things as truths rather than provocations.

Is “Beneatha’s Place” an attempt to put things right?
I don’t think it is. If Bruce went out to provoke, to create an environment of conversation, I wanted to continue the conversation, to question the assumptions.
What is the setting of “Beneatha’s Place?”
In one of the last lines in ”Raisin in the Sun,” Beneatha says her suitor wants her to come to Africa and become his wife. We pick up Beneatha doing just that. She’s gone to Nigeria in 1959. ­It’s the last year before independence. We find her amid the political turmoil of colonial Africa, and how she has to negotiate as a foreigner. If “Clybourne” and “Raisin in the Sun” are quintessentially about ownership and territory, I wanted to write a play that explores territory and ownership both cultural and geographical.
Does it step away from suburbia and gentrification?

I’ve attempted to look at territory from a slightly different angle. In the second act, Beneatha is an academic, the dean of social sciences in California. There’s a discussion around who should be teaching African and African-American history. We find ourselves in a discussion that might question whether it’s okay, for instance, for Quentin Tarantino to write a film about slavery. It’s about cultural ownership.
Where do you fall in this discussion?
I think my job is to be the person asking the questions, and seldom to have any answers. We’ve been having interesting discussions in American theater: African-Americans are routinely called in to direct plays of color, but not to direct your classics. However, now there’s a move for white directors to direct African-American and Latino plays. The question isn’t whether we can investigate each other’s cultures, the question is whether it’s a two-way street.

Does Bruce Norris have the right to enter the territory created by Lorraine Hansberry, an African-American woman? I would say “yes.” As a black Brit, do I have the right to enter the territory of an African-American woman? These are all valid debates. It’s similar to whether a black family has a right to move into a white neighborhood or a white family moves into a black neighborhood.

Martha Thomas is a Baltimore-based freelance writer who is lucky enough to write about the things she loves: food/restaurants, beautiful homes and the arts.

All photographs courtesy of Centerstage. Production photos by Richard Anderson.

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