'Beneatha's Place' review – Cherrelle Skeete gives a star-making performance

Read our three-star review of Beneatha's Place, written and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, now in performances at the Young Vic to 5 August.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

A star-making performance from Cherrelle Skeete is the immediate takeaway from Beneatha’s Place, which has come to the Young Vic a decade after its world premiere in Baltimore: the second act, in particular, has been rejigged in the meantime.

At the time of its 2013 debut, author Kwame Kwei-Armah was running Baltimore’s Center Stage and programmed his own play alongside Bruce Norris’s Tony-winning Clybourne Park as competing responses to Lorraine Hansberry’s historic A Raisin in the Sun – the 1959 work that was also the first play from a Black American woman to reach Broadway.

Since then, Kwei-Armah has become artistic director of London’s Young Vic and so has programmed his play as a standalone production that must stand or fall on its own merits. Ambitious in both scope and reach if sometimes muddled in its plotting, it certainly generates talking points: you don’t have to keep a foot in academe, as I do, to be swept up in various debates about curricular programming that have real currency today.

Those sparring matches take up a contentious second half set very much in the here and now. The first act, by contrast, finds Skeete’s feisty Beneatha – the more bookish of the Younger family children in A Raisin in the Sun – newly emigrated in 1959 from her Chicago home to Nigeria, so as to be with an African husband, Joseph Asagai (Zackary Momoh), messily embroiled in his country’s quest for independence.

The first act is bookended with glimpses of Beneatha in activist mode, but as the years rewind, she’s still finding her revolutionary voice. She keeps quiet as the Americans vacating the Lagos property to which she and Joseph have moved hold forth on light switches, and the like.

Political tumult soon wreaks havoc, and, after the interval, an elderly Beneatha returns to her onetime home, this time in the twilight of her career as a dean. American spectators may wonder how it is that someone from the University of California school system is described as being part of the Ivy League – one of several details that jars, just as other crucial narrative twists are kept opaque.

But there’s no denying the genuinely disturbing presence in both acts of an assemblage of facemasks – racist relics from an era whose awful bequest lingers on. And the second half throws politesse to the wind in a collision of minds amongst self-serious academics who speak of moving beyond race but cannot. The cast navigate the multiple roles required, with Sebastian Armesto in especially expert form as two men from opposite worlds possessed of differing amounts of guile.

Colonialism, white privilege, overly dense academic discourse: Kwei-Armah keeps numerous concerns entertainingly on the boil, and Skeete gracefully navigates some storytelling loopholes. The performance comes honestly by the cheers it prompts at the bows.

But I couldn’t help feeling late on as if the tail is wagging the dog here: events happen not because they would do so organically but because they have to happen in a certain way in order to prove a point. (For starters, wouldn’t the Beneatha of the second act have long since retired?) She finishes the play a survivor, to be sure, but to ambiguous effect.

Both acts find Beneatha’s world exploding (often quite literally) around her, which begs an intriguing question: what value is there in staying the course if so much of your life has been defined by loss?

Beneatha's Place is at the Young Vic through 5 August. Book Beneatha's Place tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Beneatha's Place (Photo by Johan Persson)

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