Thursday, December 08, 2016

Compelling and relevant Clybourne Park by CPH/CWRU

This country is in political and social turmoil.   There is a President-elect who appears will win the Electoral College endorsement, while losing the election by a reported 2-million plus votes.  There is a rise of xenophobia, the Alt-right, the presence of hate groups, possible destruction of the health care system, while the liberal-left pleads for protection against sexual imposition, women and gay rights, and clean air.

It is only appropriate, therefore, since theater represents the era from which it comes, that the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program, stage Clybourne Park, a script which highlights under-the-radar communication about racial, sexual and gender attitudes.  Bruce Norris’s play won both the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play.

Clybourne Park is a follow-up to Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, which looks at a house in the fictional Chicago urban area, before and after the Younger family moved in. 

Hansberry’s play, titled after Cleveland poet Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred,” was the first script by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway.  It starred Sidney Poitier, Cleveland native Ruby Dee, Louis Gassett, and Claudia McNeil as Lena “Mama” Younger, the woman of the family, who decides to invest the payment from her dead husband’s insurance into the purchase of a house in Chicago’s all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood in order to allow the family to have a better life.  The play won the 1969 Tony Award for best play.

Raisin in the Sun was based, in part, on Hansberry v. Lee (1940), a court case that centered on a class action suit by Lorraine’s father and the NAACP against Chicago’s restrictive covenants against Blacks living in certain areas of the city.

Hansberry wrote of the situation and the lawsuit: “That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house. ... My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court."

Norris, who is white, portrays fictional events, based on his imagination of what happened when, after the Clybourne Park neighborhood became almost all black due to white flight, and then became an “in-place” for young white “liberal” families to buy and restore, or wreck and replace properties in the now gentrified area, complete with a Whole Foods.

This is not the first play to be based on Raisin in the Sun.  In 2013, Kwame Kwei-Armah wrote Beneatha’s Place, the tale of one of the Younger daughters who becomes the Dean of Social Science at an unnamed California University, after a period of time in Nigeria.

Clybourne Park introduces Bev and Russ, who are in the process of packing to move out of their recently sold home in Chicago’s Clybourne Park neighborhood in September, 1959. 

The house is filled with negative memories.  Kenneth, their son, a Korean War depressed vet, who was accused of slaughtering civilians, hung himself in the home’s attic.  The neighbors, rather than befriending the couple, shuns them.

In Raisin in the Sun, when the neighborhood association finds out that the  house at 406 Clybourne Street has been sold to “negroes,” in order to save the community’s property values because of extrapolated black in-flight, the association sends Karl Lindner to make an attempt to bribe the Younger family to not move.  The pay-off is rejected.

In Clybourne Park, about an hour after Lindner went to the Younger apartment, he comes to the Clybourne Street house to plead with Bev and Russ to consider the neighbors and the property values.  Who the house was sold to and the attempt to call off the sale was unknown to owners.

Arguments, the history of Bev and Russ’s conflicts with the neighbors and their need to move ensue.  Their black housekeeper and her husband, who has come to take her home from work, become involved, a trunk containing Kenneth’s mementos is buried in the backyard, and the exposition for what is to be the riveting second act is laid.

The setting for the second act of the play is exactly fifty years later in the same 406 Clybourne Street house as the first act.  Now it is dilapidated.  The wall paper is ripped, windows boarded up, the wooden floor streaked with water stains.  Six people are present.  An African American couple, the wife, who we find out is the great niece of Lena “Mama” Younger, a young white couple who are planning on building a grand new house on the property, and several lawyers.

There is underlying tension.  Yes, the planned replacement house doesn’t fit the building code requirements, and there are problems over the wording of the deed, but there are unspoken issues.  After much running around in verbal circles, racial, gender and sexual orientation issues emerge, full blast.  Offensive jokes, accusations, and insults abound.  

During the mayhem, a workman, who is preparing the ground for the excavation for the new house’s foundation, enters.  He brings in the buried trunk, which is eventually opened.  The contents lead to the emotional climax of the play.

The CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program production is meticulously directed by Donald Carrier.  The humor and pathos are well refined.  The pacing, the setting, and the cast are all on target.

The cast, Lavour Addison, Paul Bugallo, Mariah Burks, Kyle Cherry, Sarah Cuneo, Randy Dierkes, Peter Hargrave and Megan Medley, all of whom play dual roles, are focused and create real and believable people.  They don’t act, they are.  Past members of the program have gone on to very successful careers in professional theatre.  The members of this class should tread the same path to positive curtain calls.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   Clybourne Park is a special evening of theater.  The Pulitzer Prize play is well written and relevant.  The production is well-conceived and acted.  This is an absolute must see production.

Clybourne Park runs through December 17, 2016, in the Helen Theatre in the Cleveland Play House complex of PlayhouseSquare.   For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

The CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program’s next presentation is Oliver Goldsmith’s SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER from March 15-25, 2017.