Theatre Review - Beneatha's Place

Beneatha's Place
 opens in the 1970s with Beneatha (Cherrelle Skeete), an African-American professor, demanding her university set up a school of black studies. Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play then jumps back in time to 1959 Nigeria, on the eve of independence. Newlyweds Beneatha and Joseph (Zackary Momoh) arrive at their new home in Lagos.

Joseph, a professor and political spokesman, has a collection of “Jim Crow memorabilia” from the US – offensive figurines and masks representing black people – powerful motifs of racist oppression. We learn that he was imprisoned by the British for his work in the independence movement.

The political climate is increasingly volatile in Nigeria and Joseph reveals to Beneatha that several members of his party have been bought out by British politicians, removing tribes from their ancestral land so that they can profit from the oil wells. Joseph has also unwittingly benefited from these machinations.

Act II is set in the present day. Beneatha, now an elderly widow, is dean at an American university. In Nigeria for a conference, she visits her house in Lagos, for the first time in decades, accompanied by Wale (Momah) a junior lecturer (and son of an oil billionaire). She has called a meeting to discuss the future of African American studies at her Ivy League university and whether it should be replaced by a Critical Whiteness course as a major.

When three white professors Harriet (Nia Gwynne), Mark (Sebastian Armesto) and Gary (Tom Godwin) start to debate the pros and cons, we realise that prejudice and colonialist perspectives still hold sway in the American education system.

Some of the characters are underdeveloped and the drama occasionally lacks tension, but Kwei-Armah, who also directs, offers an erudite response to current culture wars. It’s beautifully acted and there’s a clever final twist.

Until August 5

Originally published by Westminster Extra