4 stars out of 5
This work about race and the ownership of history could not feel more timely
Following the US Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action in universities, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s highly-charged play about race and the ownership of history could scarcely feel more timely. Or be more of a challenging workout for its audience’s presumptions and prejudices, whatever their skin colour.
It begins in 1959 with young black Chicagoan Beneatha (the brilliant Cherrelle Skeete) moving with her Nigerian activist husband Joseph Asagai to a white enclave in Lagos in anticipation of the country’s independence. Then it jumps forward to the same room today where Beneatha, now a dean of African American studies at an Ivy League college, is told by her mostly white colleagues that race is “over”.
The first half is all narrative, the second all argument. This can feel weird and unbalanced but the two parts are finely wrought reflections of each other. The script teems with knotty ideas about the erasure of black history by colonialists, the way white people moved through guilt to a perception of their own victimhood, and the notion that younger black people are exhausted by talk of race. It’s often exciting – the first act plays like a political thriller – and very funny. Asked if he’d like to contemplate his privilege a pallidly irate lecturer snaps, “I’d rather count the wrinkles on my dog’s balls.”
This British premiere, which Kwei-Armah also directs at the theatre he runs, features some superb acting. Not least from Skeete who plausibly ages 60 years through minor adjustments in her gait and her sublime hauteur. Newcomer Zackary Momoh is astonishingly, naturally watchable as Beneatha’s charismatic husband in the first half and her geeky protégé, a Nigerian petro-princeling, in the second. Sebastian Armesto pulls off a similarly impressive double as a gay CIA puppetmaster and a solicitous, sandal-wearing academic nonetheless prone to “whitesplaining”.
You don’t need to know the full backstory of the play to enjoy it, but it might help. Kwei-Armah wrote it for the US stage in 2013 as a sequel/homage to Lorraine Hansberry’s pivotal 1959 drama of African American life, A Raisin in the Sun, which featured Beneatha and Joseph: and as a riposte to the award-winning 2010 play Clybourne Park by white writer Bruce Norris, which riffed on Hansberry’s life and work.
Now updated to touch on culture wars, Trumpism and critical race theory, the play has found its moment, regressive and confusing as that moment is. If it were overhauled again in 10 years’ time, Beneatha would be pushing 100. As it is, Kwei-Armah’s play demands accommodations and allowances from the viewer. But the rewards are provokingly, bracingly stimulating.