Clybourne Park, originally produced off-Broadway in 2010, is proof that things never change. The play went on to win a Pulitzer Prize while we witnessed even more astonishing events tied to race. The case surrounding Trayvon Martin is still unresolved following a year when President Obama’s birth certificate was called into question. Clybourne Park may be even more relevant now than when it was originally written. We seem to be stuck in a cycle of destructive ignorance, a cycle Clybourne Park is painfully aware of.
Bruce Norris tackles the issue of racism head on—and a few other “isms” as well, since sexism is just as prevalent—instead of skirting the issue with clichés or simplicities. In fact, the characters who attempt to talk around the subject are the ones who don’t stand a chance. But then, no one gets off easy when race is on the table.
The first act is set in a recently sold middle-class house in a suburb of Chicago in 1959. The second is set in the same house in 2009, which is now awaiting its renovations for its next family. But the similarities between the two acts are much deeper than the setting. In both, anxiety, tension, and blatant ignorance characterize the matter at hand.
Bev and Russ have experienced tragedy and are hoping to leave their pain behind in their upcoming move. Christina Kirk plays Bev to perfection, capturing the desperate loneliness of a ‘50s housewife with searing accuracy. Russ, played by Frank Wood, is equally alone, which Mr. Wood heartbreakingly embodies. But their loneliness is understandable considering the neighbors they are surrounded by. The moralizing preacher (Brendan Griffin) is out his depth when Karl (Jeremy Stamos) and his deaf wife (Annie Parisse) barge in. The neighbors are livid, you see, that an African-American family will be moving into their neighborhood. (To make things more interesting, this unseen family is the Youngers of A Raisin in the Sun.) The preacher then indelicately asks the African-American maid Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband, Albert (Damon Guptin), for their opinion on the matter. Commence all hell breaking loose.
In the second act, it is now a white couple (Ms. Parisse and Mr. Shamos) who are the newcomers to an entirely black neighborhood, and a middle-class black couple (Ms. Dickinson and Mr. Guptin) have some concerns. The nature of the game has changed. Women speak their mind and run the show—Ms. Parisse transforms from deaf to the most outspoken of them all, and Ms. Kirk is no longer a bored housewife, but a high-power lawyer. So, too, does the role of the African-American couple change. In the ‘50s, they are treated as “the other” and begged for input, but now they are “equals” and have to earn their time to speak like everyone else. But like the ‘50s, everyone is filled with biased and selfish preconceived notions. An honest, productive conversation is an impossibility.
Clybourne Park is wickedly smart, with biting truths woven into a dark but hilarious play. You will laugh, maybe find offense, and if nothing else, leave the theater with more to discuss than time to discuss it.
Clybourne Park; Written by Bruce Norris; Directed by Pam MacKinnon; Walter Kerr Theatre; 218 West 48th Street; 212-239-6200