My first impressions after the first half of Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize winning play, Clybourne Park – which I saw on Friday night at Broadway’s Walter Kerr theater – were just how strong and seamless the writing and performances were, so much that I was thoroughly engaged for that first hour, which didn’t at all feel like an hour, and was anxious for the second half, hoping that it would continue along just as enthrallingly.
And thankfully it did… more-so actually.
It’s not often that I get to see theatre here in NYC, where there is certainly plenty of it at every level – the last time I recall was in 2010 when I saw Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in August Wilson’s excellent Fences on Broadway, which they both won Tony Awards for. And by all accounts, Clybourne Park is a play that will be in the mix for this year’s Tony Awards celebration.
We’ve been touting it as a show about race; and while that’s certainly of plot significance, I feel like it’s about so much more than that; but trying to fully grasp and explain it all just isn’t coming very easily for me right now. And that’s probably a good thing.
It’s advertised as being inspired by Lorrain Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun, and you’ll certainly see that influence in Clybourne Park; but it very much exists as its own work.
It’s clever in the approach it takes – specifically, telling the other side of the story (stories) that we don’t see in Hansberry’s acclaimed original.
While not absolutely necessary, some familiarity with Raisin will enhance your appreciation for Clybourne Park.
In A Raisin in the Sun, the story centers on the life of the Youngers, an African-American family living in Southside Chicago in the 1950s, who receive $10,000 from the deceased Mr. Younger’s life insurance policy. Each of the adult members of the family has an idea as to what he or she would like to do with the money; but of most crucial to the Clybourne Park narrative is what the matriarch of the family wants to do with the funds, which is to buy a house to fulfill a dream she shared with her husband. And eventually, after a clashing of ideas and dreams, Mama puts a down payment on a house for the whole family – a house that happens to be in the all-white middle class neighborhood called Clybourne Park, of course the title of the Broadway play.
And when the Youngers’ future neighbors find out that the Youngers are moving in, they send Mr. Karl Lindner, from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, to essentially bribe that the Youngers with money, and in return, they don't move into the neighborhood.
Of course, the Youngers refuse the offer.
In Bruce Norris' play, which takes place in 2 different eras, 50 years apart (1959 and 2009) we are first introduced to the 1950s white family in Clybourne Park (grieving parents Bev and Russ, whose son, a Korean War veteran, recently committed suicide in that same house) who have just sold their house to the Youngers. They receive a visit from their local vicar, as well as a neighbor and his deaf, pregnant wife, who are there to inform them that the family buying the house is black, and want to convince them not to sell to this black family, fearing that, amongst other things, property values in the neighborhood would fall if black families start moving in. The old "there goes the neighborhood," saying…
And by the way, this neighbor's name is Karl, as in Mr Karl Lindner, the same (albeit) minor character from Hansberry's original play who attempts to bribe the Youngers into abandoning their plans to move into the neighborhood.
And as you'd expect, arguments ensue about the potential problems of integrating the neighborhood, which also includes Russ and Bev's black housekeeper and her husband (who has come to pick her up as her shift ends, and gets caught up in the kerfuffle); the black couple essentially becomes a pawn, as each side of the argument uses them to help support their stance: Karl Lindner's suggestion that they (black people don't belong in Clybourne Park), and the couple (Russ and Bev) taking on the opposing view, although not necessarily because they are racially aware and sympathetic to the *black struggle,* but more because of their (specifically Russ') animus towards the neighborhood for the lack of empathy they showed their son when he returned from the Korean War, which Russ believes led to his suicide.
The second act of the play catapults the story 50 years later, to 2009, certainly a noticeably different zeitgeist where racial harmony is concerned; or is it?
Set in the same exact home as in Act I, the same actors reappear but play different characters, as roles are essentially switched, as the audience learns from their conversations that over the previous 50 years, one of Karl Linder's fears did come true – Clybourne Park eventually became an all-black neighborhood, went through some changes of its own, like lowered property values, years of changing demographics, economic shifts to the downside, the rise of drug use and violence, and really just the overall deterioration of the neighborhood.
And, in a humorous twist, the now predomantily African American Clybourne Park area is now starting to become gentrified, as white people, attracted to the low-cost real estate, are moving back in. Specifically, a white couple is seeking to buy and renovate the same house initially occupied by Russ and Bev (and then later the Youngers, but apparently they, nor their descendants live there anymore).
This white couple (she's pregnant with their first child) who are moving in, want to make some renovations/additions to the house that their neighbors aren't too thrilled about, and are now having to negotiate with local housing regulations, including a black couple who are representing a neighborhood organization.
The white couple's lawyer is Karl Linder's daughter (whom his wife was pregnant with in Act 1), and the black wife is a relative of the Youngers.
And what starts off as a civil negotiation soon degenerates into an explosive one centered on matters of race, as was the case in the first act; seemingly innocent conversations about non-race matters eventually devolve into race matters, as if to say that it's always about race, in a play that's peppered with discussions of word origins and travel, that, in a way, underpin the characters' obsession with groupings based on background, whether racial, or socio-economic.
It's really a very well written play, and I can understand its Pulitzer Prize win, and why Wendell Pierce (whom I have to thank for the tickets that got me into the theater) is one of its producers. It's smart, witty, daring, and engaging throughout, and I'd add that it was really bold on the writer, Bruce Norris' part, to pen a work that dared to take on Raisin In The Sun – arguably one of the most celebrated plays in American history.
The performances from the cast (Crystal A. Dickinson, Brendan Griffin, Damon Gupton, Christina Kirk, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos and Frank Wood) are strong, as is the direction by Pam MacKinnon, making her Broadway debut, and, with perception and absurdity, the play has provocative things to say about race relations (then vs now), our perceptions of community, how we communicate (in this case, polite double-talk – a world where people rarely ever say exactly what they mean – that's eventually exhausted), and lastly, change, or rather lack thereof, over generations.
Although, unlike Hansberry's hopeful original work, Clybourne Park is far more pessimistic I'd say, painting this rather gloomy portrait of America, even still today, despite apparent progress, and will likely leave you more apprehensive about the future.
That doesn't affect the jovial tone of the play itself, however, which, as already noted, is chock-full of sharp wit; and maybe that's partly because humor helps make tackling the otherwise powder-keg of an issue, an easier pill for audiences to swallow. It certainly makes it more entertaining to watch. But I'd say Norris is a good enough writer that you will get something more from it than that.
Clybourne Park is a tightly-constructed work (even in the play's early moments when one can sense buried layers waiting to burst through, in what seems like an innocuous conversation between an aging couple), and I found it enthralling to watch.
The interactions between the characters are indeed interesting and comical to observe, as each tries hides behind a coating of public superiority – and maybe that's because we see ourselves in them. But whether or not we'll take that instruction out of the theater with us is another thing.
Despite 50 years of social shifts, the change that all that tolerance has produced is really just on the surface, and Norris, via his play, depicts how much our attitudes toward race remain hindered by our inability to communicate honestly with one another – the pink elephant in the room that we are all fully aware of, yet do everything we can to avoid.
It's a play that I think is definitely worth seeing, if only as a reflection of who we are, but also who we'd like to be, and how far we still have to go to get there.