Through June 16, Center Stage presents The Raisin Cycle—two plays (performed in rotating repertory) inspired by A Raisin in the Sun. The first, Clybourne Park, is a 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Bruce Norris that follows the home in A Raisin in the Sun through cycles of urban decline and gentrification. The second, Beneatha’s Place, is a world-premiere by Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, that chronicles the life of Beneatha Younger, a character in A Raisin in the Sun. Kwei-Armah spoke to Baltimore about this ambitious undertaking.
Why did you decide to present it this way?
Well, I think a couple of things. Number one, if there was a theme for this season it was “welcome to the conversation,” and I thought the idea of plays being in conversation with each other would be a most magnificent manifestation of that. I saw Clybourne Park, and I wanted to have a conversation with some of the connotations attached to that play. I knew that it was inspired by A Raisin in the Sun and we thought, if you have a writer as an artistic director, why don’t we take the debate forward and write a play that will be in conversation with both of them?
Can audiences get these plays without having seen A Raisin in the Sun?
If you have knowledge of it, then it should be better. If you don’t have knowledge of it, it stands by itself, but it is very clear it’s a connection.
Both plays will be performed by the same company of actors, sometimes in back-to-back performances. How are rehearsals going? How are the actors juggling all their different roles?
I think they are officially, what’s the word? Meltdown! [Laughs] They’re doing rather brilliantly, actually. We did a run yesterday of both of the plays, and its remarkable that they can keep that many lines in their head in time. And I’m an actor, so that’s not just me going, “How did you learn the lines?”
There will be some weekends when audiences can do a double bill and see both plays back-to-back, right?
That’s correct. Absolutely. Absolutely.
So for those weekends what is the time commitment we’re talking about here? We’re talking about a good two, four, five hours in the theatre, I would imagine. It’s a daylong event.
Are you going to, like, give people like Power Bars or something halfway through? Gatorade? I think we can think about that, that’s very true, at least giving people some sustenance, or some kind of pick me up. Particularly as my play is second, I want them to be awake for my play!
Exactly, it’s in your best interest to have them all happy and fed.
Responsive to the show.
You’ve said you struggled with some of the implications of Clybourne Park. Can you elaborate?
What I meant was that I had found some of the connotations in Clybourne to be of great interest. I’ll reiterate that I don’t think Bruce went out to write something that was somehow meant to insult me, but I think the play goes out to do what all good plays are supposed to do: be a catalyst for a debate. When I saw the antagonist in Act I saying, if you let the blacks in, then the neighborhood will go down, and then, in Act II, the neighborhood has deteriorated, and there is a young white couple coming in, in order to pick the area up again, the connotation is that whites build and blacks destroy.
These plays deal with race in America. You’re British. Are you worried about addressing these hot-button American issues?
Of course I am. I would be stupid not to [be]. I would describe this as my American play. And when you step into every new area one has to be aware and frightened, and I am both aware and frightened that I am a foreigner walking into someone else’s home, much like the theme in Clybourne. I think I validated it, to myself at least, by [saying], if I am an artistic director of an American institution, then I better get a grip pretty quickly on feeling at home here and commenting on things that mean something to me and mean something to the country.
When you were writing Beneatha’s Place you had already accepted the artistic directorship at Center Stage, is that right?
So you know you were writing Beneatha’s Place to be premiered in Baltimore?
Yes I did.
Beneatha’s Place, Clybourne Park, and A Raisin in the Sun deal with themes of race but through the prism of economics and class, issues relevant to Baltimore. Did you have that in the back of your mind, knowing you were writing it for the Baltimore stage?
Absolutely, that’s why we programmed Clybourne; that’s why we programmed the reply.
Since you’ve been here, have you seen evidence that this is still an ongoing issue in Baltimore?
I certainly think there is a notion of gentrification. But I’m aware of it being an issue in parts of East Baltimore.
Yeah, specifically with Hopkins, you mean?
Absolutely. I’m aware of that. I don’t try to make a comment from that. Actually, I don’t really deal with gentrification in Beneatha’s Place. I’m also aware that Baltimore is getting 10,000 new families. I’m greatly in support of that. So, yes it certainly makes it fit with what’s already happening in and around Baltimore City.
Basically, there is nothing explicit about Baltimore in any of these plays, but the general atmosphere in Baltimore did help inspire it, would be that be fair to say?
Yes and no. I think that simply writing in America—I came here 18-19 months ago—[race] is a much hotter topic than I had thought it would be, and it is a much hotter topic than I thought it would be in my own life. I find myself fascinated by it—and surprised. But I would not attribute that to Baltimore alone.
It is an enduring topic of conversation.
I’m certainly not trying to create any solution, and certainly neither am I making a comment saying, “Oh America, you’re really bad at race.” I do think American people discuss race a lot, just below the surface of many conversations. I find myself interested in that as a phenomenon, and that’s why I began to write a play. I can only really write the play because I was experiencing very new things. My job as a playwright is to reflect that.
I think what you’re referring to is, in America, often times the debate, on the surface, will seem to be about economics or education, but really it’s not—it’s about race, it obviously ties in with the themes in these plays perfectly.
This is quite the issue of the plays. There isn’t really an answer. It is but a reflection.
And, as you say, the goal with these plays is to create more discussion.
Oh debate, certainly.
So do you feel like there can be an answer through discussion, or does discussion just begat more discussion?
Well that’s a wonderful question, and I would have to answer it like this: I quite believe that conversation begats conversation. I believe, actually, that conversation is the beginning of a catalyst, and actually nobody changes anyone. Conversation alerts something in your mind that says I should reconsider. Again the dialogue of reconsidering and then of change. My sense is I only want to be a catalyst for a debate. There are brilliant minds out there that can find the solution to it. So I like to invigorate those who may have answers that I certainly don’t have.