Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Clybourne Park

CLYBOURNE PARK…a fascinating view of neighborhood integration and gentrification

Have you ever wondered, after seeing a play, what might have happened to the characters or even the physical structure in which the story is set, before the play began or after it ended? Bruce Norris’s CLYBOURNE PARK does exactly that.

Flash back to 1959, where, at the conclusion of Lorraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN THE SUN, the black Younger family is about to move into the all-white Clyborune Park area of Chicago. Before the move, fearing the lowering of housing costs and white flight, the neighbors sent Karl Lindner, a bigoted community leader, to offer the Youngers money for not finalizing the deal. As it turned out, Lena, the matriarch of the family, refused the offer and the Youngers moved to a house numbered 406.

(Side note: the story parallels the plight of Hansberry’s family. In 1937, her father bought a home in Chicago’s segregated Washington Park area. The restricted covenants were challenged, resulting in a legal case (Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32). The Hansberrys won, moved in and the house now has National Landmark Preservation status.)

(Enter Norris) CLYBOURNE PARK takes us into 406, several days before the Youngers were to move in. Bev and Russ, the owners of the property, are grief stricken. Their son, Kenneth, who was accused of war crimes in the Korea, had committed suicide in his bedroom. The family, which has been ostracized, decided to sell the house. We are never sure whether they sold to a black family to get back at their neighbors, or, as they state, were “unaware of the race of the new owners.” Lindner, the character from RAISIN, comes to plead with Bev and Russ to withdraw from the deal. After an emotional confrontation in front of a group of neighbors, the sellers refuse. (Exit Norris.)

(Re-enter Norris). The second act of CLYBOURNE PARK takes place in 2009. The same actors as in Act 1, playing different characters, are present. There is conflict as to whether the house, in what is now becoming a gentrified community, will be sold, leveled and a new structure built by a white family. African American Lena and her husband represent the local neighborhood association, and mention that her Great-Aunt moved her family to that house in 1959. (It is probably not by chance that the young lady has the same name as her Great-Aunt.) Racism enters as the blacks, who have rebuilt the neighborhood, don’t want white suburbanites to buy and change the character of the houses, many of which have been rebuilt to mirror their historical past.

Does the viewer have to know all of the intertwining stories in order to appreciate the Norris play? No, but it does add a psychological jolt to realize that we are watching the blending the ideas of two great playwrights. It is also eye-opening to realize that Hansberry, whose RAISIN IN THE SUN is considered the seminal black civil rights play, did not win a Pulitzer Prize for her script, but Norris did for his. One can only wonder if gender and race, subjects of both scripts, was a factor in Hansberry’s denial decision.

The play, under the adept direction of Pam MacKinnon, is spell binding. The pacing is excellent, the characters clearly developed, the settings are era correct and work well to convey the passage of time and neighborhood change.

Norris, an actor as well as a playwright, writes characters that live. This is a unified cast production, in which each participant carries equal weight for the success of the production. Fortunately, the cast, Crystal Dickinson, Brendan Griffin, Damon Gupton, Christina Kirk, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos and Frank Wood each effectively textures his/her dual roles.

Capsule Judgement: Pulitzer Prize winning CLAYBOURNE PARK is an emotionally moving script that effectively highlights the still present distrust between members of different races. It gets an impressive production under Pam MacKinnon’s direction. It’s a significant play worth seeing.

(The on-Broadway production opened April 26, 2012 in the Walter Kerr Theatre for a 16-week limited engagement. )