Jeremy Malies on the South Bank
7 July 2023
Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park shows a character arriving on stage 15 minutes after an event in the plot of A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry whose action has been taking place two streets away in Chicago. Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, trumps this by exporting two of Hansberry’s characters wholesale and taking them to an affluent enclave of Lagos in the same time scheme which is 1959. The pretext is that the titular Beneatha has married Joseph, a Nigerian Yoruba intellectual (also from Hansberry’s play), who has been parachuted into politics in his homeland.
Jumoké Fashola and Cherrelle Skeete.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
The first scene (it is in fact an act) shows the middle of our plotline and has Cherrelle Skeete as Beneatha on the campus of the unnamed American university that is the fulcrum of the plot. She is a graduate student by now and Joseph has died young. We then go back in time to 1959 and see Nigeria holding its first election after British rule.
This act is outstanding and full of wonderful gags that evolve naturally from the idiomatic speech that Kwei-Armah gives his cast and the nimble characterization. He skewers the condescension of a pair of Deep South missionaries (Tom Godwin and Nia Gwynne) as they whitesplain the electricity and plumbing of the upscale embassy-style apartment through which set designer Debbie Duru conjures up the late Fifties with judiciously chosen props.
Skeete wins us over with her mock wide-eyed astonishment at the intricacies of turning on a tap or switch. The play gains momentum from the excellence of Sebastian Armesto as bachelor neighbour Daniel who drops in with a welcome gift of apple pie. He and Beneatha bond such that Daniel feels comfortable in hinting that his job as a telecoms executive is a front for surveillance on behalf of the CIA and he will not be playing the field with African women since he is gay. As Joseph, Zackary Momoh is empathetic when he begins to furnish the apartment with ironic knick-knacks from a minstrelsy era in American culture that was only beginning to recede at the time the action is set. (In programme notes, Kwei-Armah recalls visiting the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery in Michigan.) The knick-knacks are set next to genuine juju items to show how Western culture has fed off the vibrancy of West African folk magic while also bastardizing it.
Cherrelle Skeete, Zackary Momoh, Nia Gwynne and Tom Godwin.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
As director for his own work (this is possibly misguided) Kwei-Armah draws first-rate acting from the cast to complement his satirical powers and flair for metaphor. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was exhilarated. The constituent parts are joined skilfully by sound designer Tony Gayle who catapults us across decades with deftly chosen snippets from the speeches of American politicians.
And so, it’s a disappointment when things fall apart in the third act. As with Clybourne Park, we see different characters (Beneatha is the only person common to both) in the same location after several decades have elapsed, with every actor other than the title character playing two roles. Beneatha has returned to the Lagos apartment she first knew in 1959, this time as dean of the humanities faculty of the university. The year (there are Covid masks and trim-looking tablets) is about 2021. Skeete, who is brilliant throughout, draws on her technical armoury to suggest a woman in advanced old age not by introducing new traits but emphasizing ones she has artfully introduced in the first act.
The fault here is not with the acting (though as one of the department heads Nia Gwynne is unsubtle) but with Kwei-Armah proving unable to resist the temptation to use characters as mouthpieces for political and cultural positions. A symposium in Lagos for these people is quite a stretch and it’s difficult to understand how the entire staff of a faculty would agree to spend their rest day discussing future handling of the curriculum. Helpfully, each character has explained who they are and the issue at hand is drawn on a flipchart! The dilemma for the academics is whether the school of social sciences should focus on African-American Studies or Cultural Whiteness Studies and these options are presented as binary.
Even if things begin to drag and become discursive, Kwei-Armah (never prescriptive as I learned when I interviewed him) just about preserves the integrity of his play by giving voice to both views and evaluating academics of all stripes. There are hints in the dialogue and in the writer’s programme interview that certain sectors of Black society both in the US and Europe are indeed fatigued with discussion of race issues, no longer see it as progressive, and are concerned that it may have become stereotypical. Similarly, the text gives voice to the increasing sense of victimhood (justified or not) among working-class cisgender heterosexual white men.
Sebastian Armesto and Cherrelle Skeete.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Press night coincided with a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States (as a legacy of right-leaning Trump appointments) to dispense with affirmative action in university admissions. Balance to some extent comes from the fact that an African-American Studies sceptic (Tom Godwin outstanding) is given the best wisecracks and even allowed to reference disgraced alt-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. (Godwin’s character says he would rather count the wrinkles on his dog’s balls than contribute to a debate on critical race theory!)
Yoruba audience members have vouched for the work of voice and dialect coach Esi Acquaah-Harrison in creating an accurate backdrop. Nigeria is proving a fertile ground for theatre projects and only a few years ago up the road at the National Theatre there was an adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in which Inua Ellams focused on Igbo culture in the late Sixties including Biafra’s disastrous attempt at secession with the one interloper character being Yoruba.
But whatever the authenticity, Kwei-Armah lacks Bruce Norris’s rare ability to give actors the same lines in parallel scenes to highlight different shades of meaning and show societal changes. For all the admirable work early on, I left feeling harangued and with one too many of my political and cultural buttons having been pushed perhaps gratuitously.
The piece debuted in Baltimore in 2013 while Kwei-Armah was artistic director of the city’s Center Stage. It has gained resonance over the last few days in view of Florida governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis’s ban on new advanced American history courses in state schools but the play remains strident and does not coalesce or land any significant punches.