I’ve been pondering how to write about this Pulitzer and Olivier-award winning play since seeing its 3rd official Broadway performance just a few days ago. It is certainly a cleverly written treatise on racism in America. Despite being intensely dramatic at times, it’s also rip-roaringly funny. Yet all the while it skewers mainly white Americans for their built-in prejudices and bigotry. I’ve touched on this topic recently in my review of the film, “The Help”. But whereas that movie takes the easy way out as I saw it, this play, without question, does not. Some viewers may think that the conversations in “Clybourne Park” are “old-hat” discussions about racial inequality—and in a way, they are. But, unfortunately, these subjects are still highly topical because we haven’t come as far as much of “white America” would like to claim we have. Surely, people will say, after electing an African-American President and raising media extraordinaire Oprah Winfrey to multi-billionaire we’ve progressed by leaps and bounds. Can’t really argue that those are massive steps in the right direction. And then an unarmed black teenager gets gunned down in Florida for looking suspicious, and we again fall back a few steps. “Clybourne Park”, which I found out today was written by a white playwright/actor(Bruce Norris), is an important work because it doesn’t shy away from those uncomfortable realities. And we should be ecstatic that it has made it all the way to Broadway, after a limited off-Broadway run two years ago, because a producer vs playwright squabble almost kept it from happening.
The drama unfolds in two different time periods(1959 and 2009)in the living room of a modest home in a Chicago suburb. Seven actors eventually grace the stage in the 1959 1st Act, and then take on different roles in the 2009 2nd Act—even though each new character is given some sort of nuance from their opening stanza doppelgänger. It’s a neat trick that works because the performers are so uniformly fluid(the entire original off-Broadway cast from 2010 returns for this limited run). Also, as I mentioned in last week’s review of the 1961 film of “A Raisin in the Sun”, the 1959 portion has one very important “familiar” character. That would be the Lorraine Hansberry creation Karl Lindner(played by Jeremy Shamos here), as lifted directly from her 1959 original play of “A Raisin in the Sun”. Now, you don’t have to watch the 1961 film before getting your ticket for “Clybourne Park”. But it does supply you with some worthwhile background. In Hansberry’s play, Mr. Lindner is infamous for presenting himself to the Younger family as the head of the Clybourne Park “welcoming committee”. He then proceeds to shift the dialogue to how “impractical” it is for the Youngers to move into that suburban all-white neighborhood. As the conversation turns uglier, Lindner goes as far as offering a substantial financial incentive to the Youngers if they give up their purchase of the home.
Norris’ play takes place soon after the Lindner character has made that offer and then arrives at the home of Bev and Russ(played by the standouts of the show, Christina Kirk and Frank Wood)to tell that tale. Bev and Russ seem surprised to learn that their home has been purchased by a black family, but they are ultimately uninterested in nixing the sale despite Lindner’s protestations. You see Bev and Russ are survivors of a tragedy in the house—their war-veteran son hung himself in an upstairs bedroom a few years prior. Plus they are not racist. In fact, just about every character in both acts of “Clybourne Park” will in some fashion make that claim. Other people are bigots. These characters are simply concerned about the “realities” of desegregation and the effect it will have on their property values and lifestyles. Eventually there are five caucasian characters in the room and two African-Americans. In the 1959 portion those black characters are Bev and Russ’ maid Francine(Crystal A. Dickinson)and her husband Albert(Damon Gupton)who has arrived to pick up his wife from work. Francine and Albert have learned over time to remain mostly quiet and respectful in front of white folks, but their silence speaks volumes here. The caucasian citizens of Clybourne Park quickly reveal their ignorance and hatred throughout the play’s opening hour. Karl Lindner at one juncture queries whether or not black people like to ski and also mentions the lack of typical foods that “colored people” eat at the local supermarket, as the local priest(Brendan Griffin)questions whether they are supposed to call them colored-people or “negroes” . Bev goes as far as to say that she considers her maid Francine a “friend” as much as an employee, to hysterical howls from the audience and quizzical sneers from the character of Francine. And Bev is one of the most sympathetic characters on the stage. The white citizens of 1959 Clybourne Park are displayed as the ignorant fools they all are throughout Act One before we transport ourselves 50 years into the future.
2009. Clybourne Park has now become a suburb of mostly black families. And the neighborhood has gone somewhat downhill and the property values have taken a hit. Not to fear, because brand-new ignorant white folk arrive to save the day! Act Two is mostly a zoning meeting in the house involving a lawyer, a real estate agent, a handyman, a young white couple who are potential buyers and a black couple whose distaff half is a direct descendant of the Youngers from “A Raisin in the Sun”. As the audience plainly views graffiti spray-painted on the walls of the 2009 version of the home, it becomes apparent that the neighborhood is now becoming a regentrification project. White families are moving back in with the eventual goal being to “raise” the standard of the community. The white couple(Jeremy Shamos and Annie Parisse)are expecting their first child and hoping to purchase and expand upon the former Younger home. The black couple(Ms. Dickinson and Mr. Gupton again)represent the zoning board raising some objections to some of the proposed rebuilding and extensions of the currently still-standing home. Ms. Dickinson’s Lena, in particular, is focused on making sure that the history of the area is not lost—she being a relative of the Younger family, the first family of African-Americans to move there 50 years ago. It doesn’t take long for the prejudice mentality to rear its ugly head once again leading to the telling of offensive jokes, petulant squabbles and nearly a physical altercation. The show wraps with a powerful flashback coda involving the suicide of the young man from the 1950’s. I wasn’t sure about the necessity of this scene when watching at the theatre, but it does speak volumes in the rearview. Clybourne Park appears to be coming full circle, but when will that vicious cycle cease to spin.
Most of this dynamite production is beautifully realized. The direction by Pam McKinnon has a keen awareness of pace that never allows the focus to lapse. The one-room set is given the perfect 50-years in the future makeover by designer Daniel Ostling. How important are the issues raised by the arguments and conversations raised in “Clybourne Park”? How impossible is it to recall the recent smash film “The Help” while watching the scenes in Act I involving the maid? And how easy to correlate the recent shooting of an unarmed Trayvon Martin with the escalating prejudices that reveal themselves in Act II. Ask yourselves this if you are a white suburban homeowner(I am one)…are you disturbed by the appearance of “people of color” in your neighborhood? Do you work in an office where inappropriate comments are made about other races only to be laughed off as “jokes”? Are you aware of your own areas of racist ignorance and prejudice, or do you simply claim not to be one of those people? Well, “Clybourne Park” holds a mirror up to that quandary, and does so with one of the most provocative and timely productions of this Broadway season. “Clybourne Park” is a winner. This show rates a 9.