Building on a legacy begun more than five decades ago, Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE [CQ] continues to enliven the city with topics of race and class in the latest cycle of plays based on the late Lorraine Hansberry’s Broadway debut, “A Raisin in the Sun.”
For the past two months, audience members of all ages and walks of life have witnessed playwright Bruce Norris’ explanation as to why the Youngers, the family in the Hansberry play, were able to purchase a home in the all-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park and how Beneatha Younger’s life unfolds after leaving Chicago’s tough streets.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” said Jessica Francis Dukes, who portrays the main character in the latest and final chapter of the cycle, “Beneatha’s Place,” written by CENTERSTAGE Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah.
“I think all of us knew what to expect but at the same time we didn’t,” she said of the eight-member cast that remained the same for both “Clybourne Park” and “Beneatha’s Place.”
Dukes, a Riverdale, Md. native who’s been actively engaged in theatre since the seventh grade, told the AFRO that to prepare for the play cast members had to leave their “emotional baggage at the door” and truly delve into the heart of each character, bigots and protagonists alike.
“It’s very easy for it to turn into a tense situation but everyone was so willing to go there,” she said of her roles in both plays that compel viewers to grapple with new and enlightened presentations of everything from gentrification of Black neighborhoods and affirmative action in the workplace to Africa’s struggle to break free of colonialism’s death grip.
“What changes is not necessarily the topic, but who’s in the running for it,” said Dukes. “In a ‘Raisin in the Sun,’ it’s a family in the running to be better. They are fighting against the odds, being in the neighborhood that they are in, having the income that they have in the time period they live in.”
“Clybourne Park deals with the other side of it--who owns what and who is entitled to what.”
To prepare for her role in “Beneatha’s Place,” Dukes said she researched women who have contributed to society by breaking stereotypes and rising above the challenges that come with being a Black woman. She also studied women who served as domestic workers and community leaders during each play’s time period and of course, the ladies of her own family that she says were excellent examples of upstanding, strong-willed women.
“I’ve been reading a Raisin in the Sun since I was a little girl,” said Dukes, who had an opportunity to play her dream role of Beneatha a year ago at the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y.
“She was so vocal, opinionated, strong, ahead of her time and forward thinking-- everything that I wanted to be. She was me,” she said.
Derrick Sanders, who said ideas and preparation for the play cycle began almost 18 months ago, directed both plays. “It’s an amazing experience,” he said. “It’s a capstone of my career.”
Like Dukes, Sanders also had previous experience with the background of the plays. In college he played the role of Hansberry’s Walter Lee.
“I think we contemporize the issues,” he said. “Hansberry’s racial discussion, as sad as it is, is still true today, but I think Norris pushed it further. “It’s about communication, the lack of it, and how we are able to speak our minds, and have real dialogue.”
One topic of discussion placed on the table is the issue of “critical whiteness studies” taking the place of African American studies in American college curriculums.
“I’ve never been a part of a show where in the lobby there is so much discussion about what just happened,” Sanders said. “That’s the power of theatre- and that’s why we do it.”
“We’re not trying to cure race,” said Sanders. “We’re just trying to ask the questions that spark the debate so we can have the conversation.
“The real question is- are we really listening to each other?”
“Beneatha’s Place” will run until June 16 at CENTERSTAGE.