Review by Daz Gale
The Young Vic have a history of producing storming shows that go on to have an exciting future life - their season last year, for example, leading to a West End transfer for one show and a Broadway transfer for another. 2023 has been a bit quieter for them in comparison but could the UK premiere of new play Beneatha’s Place be their next big hit?
Written and directed by the Young Vic’s Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, Beneatha’s Place is a story that spans eight different decades, from 1959 to the present day. Inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking civil rights drama A Raisin in the Sun, it sees Beneatha leave her home in America to be with her Nigerian husband in Lagos. As they settle in to their new home in the white suburbs, their lives don’t play out as they had planned. As Beneatha returns to that house in the present day, she questions how the future might be shaped and what part she might have to play in that.
Very much a play in two halves, act two is markedly different than the first. The one consistent is in the incredible writing from Kwame Kwei-Armah. Beginning with a key moment in Beneatha’s history only to skip back to another decade immediately is a bold choice but one that pays off. We very quickly get a feel for Beneatha’s character as she interacts with the other characters. Full of witty writing while identifying the important issues that would be explored later on in the play, Beneatha’s Place is an immediately accessible play whose pace never falters until the climactic moment of act one.
Act two is a different beast altogether, transporting the action more than 60 years in to the future – another bold choice. Whereas questions might be asked over what Beneatha has done over the past six decades, these are quickly alleviated as we meet a familiar yet markedly different character and once again fall in love with her. Set in her old house, act two takes the form of a meeting between colleagues of an educational institute who are debating whether to keep African American studies for generations to come or replace it with a new Critical Whiteness major. This leads way to a fierce debate which truly showcases Kwame’s phenomenal writing as he carefully allows both sides to plead their case, trying to find some middle ground, Beautifully explored with a varying tone between exaggerated and comedic moments and some real thought-provoking moments, its stark contrast from the first act never feels jarring with elements throwing back to earlier events, allowing a sense of cohesiveness.
Kwame Kwei-Armah’s direction is every bit as strong as his writing – from the careful placement of props as Beneatha and her husband decorate their new home to ensuring a shocking moment lands with full impact to the brilliant use of facial expressions and movement, every choice that is made elevates the writing. If at times a show can suffer from having the same person write and direct, this is not the case at all here – instead, it brings a consistency and unrivalled understanding of the story. The only minor quibble I had was the closing scene in act one does feel slightly disjointed and didn’t quite receive the impact I would have liked – not helped with an eager stage crew prematurely tidying the stage in preparation for the interval that occurred one minute later. Perhaps that seems like an extremely pedantic thing to say but it made me lose the complete escapism following a pivotal moment in the plot.
Debbie Duru’s design transports us to Beneatha’s home beautifully with a great use of props and a transformation in the second act. Shelley Maxwell’s movement is used to great effect, particularly in the very different way Beneatha carries herself from act one to act two, and Tony Gayle’s sound design has a great use of audio and speech played in mixed with crystal clear (and, at times, jolting) sound effects while Mark Henderson’s lighting is subtle but effective.
The themes of racism, prejudice, privilege and culture wars are all explored with great detail and care. Hearing differing opinions played out in a way that wasn’t always weighted to one side, with Beneatha understanding both parts of the argument was a credit to the calibre of the writing. The theme of reckoning with your past while ensuring your future is not compromised led to some interesting themes, with the title of the show in itself being open to interpretation (the “place” in question could be her physical home, to know her place in the world or to defy it).
Six sensational performers make up the cast of Beneatha’s Place – all but one of whom play multiple roles throughout. Jumoke Fashola is a highlight as the scene-stealing Aunty Fola, giving the audience plenty of laughs in her comparatively short time on stage. Zackary Momoh shows enormous versatility in two very different characters as Beneatha’s husband Joseph Asagai and colleague Wale Oguns, both charismatic in their own way. Sebastian Armesto similarly gets to channel two very different characters, with a more comic Daniel Barnes and a more complicated and serious Professor Mark Bond. Tom Godwin and Nia Gwynne complete the supporting cast, each getting moments of their own to shine in both acts with their time as Mr and Mrs Nelson at the beginning an immediate standout.
There is one cast member I haven’t mentioned yet and for very good reason. That reason being her place belongs at the very end of this review. As Beneatha, Cherrelle Skeete delivers a truly outstanding performance. To say the character goes on a journey would be an understatement. Not only is there growth in the short space of time that is act one, the way she manages to play the same character 60 years later in a way that feels different but reassuringly familiar is a testament to her acting abilities. Cherrelle has a lot to deal with in this role and does so with ease in a performance completely aligned with Beneatha and showing a real understanding for the character and her story. With a great knack for a comedic performance, the ability to channel all the emotional depth of a moment and always be full of charisma, Cherrelle is consistently captivating in a performance so exceptional, it will surely see her mentioned in awards categories over the next twelve months.
Beneatha’s Place is a stunning play in itself, with bold choices and exceptional writing creating a show that is always gripping to watch. As strong as the writing and direction is, it is the lead performance by Cherrelle Skeete which really elevates this to something even more special. For me, the best show I have seen at the Young Vic in a long time, there is definitely a place on the stage for a show as fantastic as this.
Beneatha’s Place plays at the Young Vic until 5th August. Tickets from www.youngvic.org
Photos by Johan Persson