Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris, is a story – or two stories – about racial shifts in neighbourhoods in Chicago. The concept of this play has two interesting notes. One is that the two acts are set in the same house in 1959 and in 2009. The other is that it’s intended to connect with the 1957 play Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry.
I haven’t watched or read the play Raisin in the Sun, but the movie of the same name, with Sidney Poitier, is conveniently available on iTunes. That story focuses on an African American family, living together in a small apartment, who use some life-insurance money to buy a house in an all-white neighbourhood. In one scene, a delegate of a neighbourhood association attempts to buy the house back from them, using the 1959 version of trying to justify the segregated neighbourhood while claiming that they aren’t acting out of race prejudice. My impression from the movie was that while it was a fascinating portrayal of the lives and limitations of African American people in a northern city in that era, the conflict with the new neighbours was not the main focus of the story.
The first act of Clybourne Park is set the same day as that visit, in the house that the white family has just sold. And similar to the source material, the fact that the buyers are non-white does not come up until late in the first act and is not even very important to the couple who are selling, Russ and Bev (Doug Mertz and Kerry Sandomirsky). Their bigger troubles are revealed gradually, as friends and neighbours (Cole Humeny as Jim in clerical collar and hernia truss, Martin Happer and Tracey Power as Karl and Betsy) drop in and awkwardly express concern, and their household help Francine (Sereana Malani) finishes her work for the day and is collected by her husband Albert (Michael Blake) who gets roped in to carry a trunk. Because the audience is aware that the play focuses on race issues, the details of how the white people treat Francine and Albert are immediately uncomfortable. A poignant telling example is the way that after Bev makes a little speech about how she and Francine are such close friends, she’d be glad to have Francine and Albert and their two lovely children as neighbours – but the audience already knows that Francine has three children.
However, there are lots of other details about 1959 life and customs that were equally jarring to me. Tracey Power’s character is Deaf, and the 21st-century audience was frequently gasping about how her friends talked about her and treated her. And in the initial conversation between Russ and Bev, a long-married couple, there was an accepted dynamic of the husband being the expert and the wife being unaware of geography, politics, or other significant facts – and I never did make up my mind how much of that was put on, Bev kind of choosing to play that role to support her husband.
The story explains why they want to sell the house, and why they’ve been relieved to find a buyer. We don’t actually meet the buyers, but the first act ends with us feeling glad that Russ and Bev will be able to move on.
While the curtain was down for intermission, the house was aging 50 years and the set underwent an astonishing transformation. I loved looking at both sets – the fussy details of the well-cared for 1959 living-room covered with moving boxes, and then the graffiti and broken banisters of the living room of the abandoned house in 2009. The situation of the second act was that a young white couple (Happer and Sandomirsky) are buying the house with plans to fix it up and expand it. They, their real estate agent (Power), and a lawyer (Humeny) meet with delegates from the current neighbourhood association (Malani and Blake) who have some concerns about the proposed renovations. But the conversation soon reveals the 2009 versions of condescensions and flawed assumptions, men talking over women and white people patronizing black people, and also the 2009 version of reluctance to talk directly about racial issues – which then descends painfully into some telling jokes full of horrible stereotypes, as the audience winces while anticipating punchlines and then laughs out of sheer awfulness. Eventually we learn that the real estate agent is the daughter of Karl and Betsy from the first act, and that Malani’s character is the niece (or some kind of relative?) of the first African American woman to own the house in 1959 (she’s not in this play, but in Raisin in the Sun that would be the grandmother Lena who uses her husband’s life-insurance money). So we see that a circle has been turned, and we also see the similarities between attitudes in the two eras despite surface differences.
There is a short coda with Evan Hall filling in a hinted-at piece of the 1959 story, and then we went home with a lot to think about. It made me uncomfortable, but it didn’t make me too uncomfortable. And I liked it that it wasn’t a bigger story – that a lot of it was just about people getting by, with the big family issues and the bigger social issues in the background. I identified easily with almost everyone in the second act, but the character I liked best was Bev (Sandomirsky) in the first act.
Clybourne Park is playing at the Citadel until February 16th.
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