Life & Culture

Beneatha’s Place review: Crackles with culture war tension

Contentious opinions in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play makes it feel more urgent than ever


BENEATHA'S PLACE by Kwame Kwei-Armah, , Writer & Director- Kwame Kwei-Armah
Designer - Debbie Duru, Lighting Designer - Mark Henderson,
Sound Designer - Tony Gayle, 
Movement Director - Shelley Maxwell , The Young Vic Theatre, 2023, Credit: Johan Persson/

Beneatha’s Place
Young Vic | ★★★★✩

Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play is nothing if not ambitious, inspired as it is by two formidable works of the American stage: Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 Chicago-set dissection of the African American condition A Raisin in the Sun, and Bruce Norris’s 2010 response to Hansberry’s classic, Clybourne Park.

It is also worth knowing ahead that the Beneatha of the title is a daughter of the Chicago family in Hansberry’s play and that their struggle is to escape the prejudice and poverty in which they and most of their fellow African Americans were trapped when Hansberry’s play was first seen on Broadway.

With that backstory established we can now turn to Beneatha’s Place, a house in Lagos, in Nigeria where Beneatha is achieving the ambition expressed in Raisin to rediscover her African heritage.

Here she moves into the formerly white-owned home with her husband Joseph Asagai (the excellent Zackary Momoh) who is planning to build a life away from American racism.

Joseph is a fast-rising politician who is seen by many as the incorruptible future of Nigeria as the country nears independence from British rule.

The play then vaults forward to the present day with Beneatha now a well-preserved 70-year-old dean of African American studies at a top American university.

Back in Nigeria for a convention, Beneatha has taken the opportunity to hold a meeting with her fellow academics in the now dusty and abandoned house in which the first act was set.

The subject of the meeting is the university’s new curriculum and the controversial plan to ditch African American Studies, the faculty which Beneatha founded, in favour of a critical whiteness studies course.

There is no getting away from the artifice of this set-up. True, for Beneatha the setting which is infused with the legacy of colonialism usefully informs a discussion about whether African American studies is a relevant subject or not.

However, her eccentric choice for the location for the meeting is really Kwei-Armah’s who is determined to mirror the structure of Norris’s Clybourne Park, a play which skewers white liberal complacency about racism.

Putting aside the gear-grinding intent of that objective, this production – which is directed by the author — nonetheless soars thanks to the thrillingly knotty arguments it contains and its excellent performances led by Cherrelle Skeete’s Beneatha who exudes an enduring appetite to fight the good fight wherever it may be needed.

Sebastian Armesto as the head of African American studies superbly embodies the double-think political correctness of white liberalism and it is to Kwei-Armah’s huge credit that he gives him some of the best arguments.

So what if Beneatha’s Place does not quite reach the bar set by Lansberry’s play? And never mind that some of the culture war arguments here feel rather 2013, the year the play was first seen at the Baltimore theatre then run by Kwei-Armah.

It is still crackles with tension, the kind that only comes from going toe-toe over opinions so contentious that ten years after the play was first seen they have become taboo. In that sense it is more urgent than it ever was.

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