'Beneatha's Place'

Kim James Bey (Aunty Fola) and Jessica Frances Duke (Beneatha Asagai Younger) during dress rehearsal of "Beneatha's Place," a new play by Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah and the last segment of the theater's "Raisin Cycle." (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun photo / May 7, 2013)

Kwame Kwei-Armah is turning up the floodlights on Center Stage.

It's been not quite two years since the British-born playwright became artistic director of Maryland's largest regional theater. With his production of two button-pushing dramas nicknamed "The Raisin Cycle," the beams emanating from 700 N. Calvert St. are strong enough to be spotted in distant places, from the Big Apple to the Badger State.

Articles about the cycle, in which both plays run in repertoire and have the same casts, have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The BBC even sent a camera crew to Baltimore.

That's partly because Bruce Norris, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Clybourne Park," and Kwei-Armah, who penned "Beneatha's Place," have differing perspectives on race relations in America. Their passionately held views have sparked a provocative debate.

Center Stage is even on the radar of the heir to the British throne. "The Raisin Cycle" came up during a conversation last week between Kwei-Armah and the Prince of Wales.

"When I met first Prince Charles last fall, he asked when he could next see one of my plays," says Kwei-Armah, who received the Order of the British Empire last December.

"I was invited back last week to meet with him and [wife] Camilla at a reception in St. James Palace. I told him, 'Your Royal Highness, I have your ticket ready for "Beneatha's Place." I can personally escort you back to Baltimore.' He said he had a little engagement with the opening of Parliament, but that he'd see what he could do."

In addition, finishing touches are being put on an hourlong television special that will be part of PBS' fall arts festival. Cameras will go behind the scenes to capture the making of both plays in the cycle.

Donald Thoms, who is PBS' director of programming, said the 2011 festival drew nearly 20 million viewers over six weeks. Typically, Center Stage sells about 100,000 tickets a year.

So when " 'A Raisin in the Sun' Revisited' is broadcast at 9 p.m. Oct. 25, it will represent a quantum leap in the size of the troupe's audience. The television special is the most significant national exposure Center Stage has received since 1997, when the homegrown musical "The Triumph of Love" transferred briefly to Broadway.

"One of my goals is to get people across the country to start paying us some attention," Kwei-Armah says. "When I came to Baltimore, Center Stage was not getting the national recognition that it deserves.

"Our production of 'The Raisin Cycle' is starting a dialogue that America seems to want to listen to. I don't see it as a duel. It's more of a conversation."

Thoms is on Center Stage's board of trustees, and his daughter, Tracie, an actress, has starred in the troupe's productions. In 2001, she even portrayed Beneatha in "A Raisin in the Sun," Lorraine Hansberry's pioneering work about the shattered dreams of a black family that inspired "The Raisin Cycle."

But Thoms said the idea to feature Center Stage and the cycle originated not with him, but with a Florida-based production company.

"They came to me with the pitch," Thoms says. "Center Stage is one of the companies people are starting to talk about. The vitality that Kwame generates is quite amazing. We're becoming part of the national landscape."

Hansberry's eloquent saga follows a black family in mid-20th-century America. The Youngers pin their hopes for a better life on their plans to move out of their crumbling and cramped apartment and into a small house in a middle-class neighborhood.

"Clybourne Park," which won the Triple Crown of theater awards (the Tony, its British equivalent, the Olivier, and the Pulitzer Prize) is as cool and acerbic as "Raisin" is emotional and warm. It's scabrous, outrageous, inciting — and riotously funny.

The first act takes place immediately before "Raisin's" opening curtain; a white couple horrify their community association by selling their home to the Youngers. The second act jumps forward 50 years. A yuppie white couple buy the same home, located in what has become a struggling African-American neighborhood. Their plans to raze the graffiti-strewn house and replace it with a McMansion are met with barely veiled hostility by their black neighbors.

"I was raised in an exclusive, white enclave of Texas where, by design, we only encountered different-looking people in the form of domestic help," Norris writes in an email.

"Unlike the Youngers, the people I grew up among didn't nobly struggle to overcome the desperate odds society had rigged against them. We were the ones rigging the system, using money and influence to systematically disadvantage others. Whereas Lorraine Hansberry wrote to celebrate the nobility of her people, I wrote about my people, who I don't consider worthy of such high praise."