Thursday, April 26, 2012

Clybourne Park

I wish I could share the enthusiasm of the multitudes for Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’s play about race and resistance to change, now at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The Pulitzer committee appreciated it enough to award it the prize for drama last year. Audiences loved it so much when it was staged in 2010 at Playwrights Horizons (then and now directed by Pam MacKinnon) that it moved to Broadway this spring where theatre buzz has it winning the Tony for best new play. This would be a repeat of the London run, where it was acclaimed by critics and applauded by audiences and went on to win the Olivier Award for best play.

 The idea is definitely a creative one. Act One is set in 1959 in the Clybourne Park area of Chicago. A white couple, played by Christina Kirk and Frank Wood, are selling their house to a black family (whom we don’t meet) who will be the first in the neighborhood. Cleverly on Norris’s part, they are the Youngers, the black family of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun that was moving to Clybourne Park at the end of that play.

 Norris twists this devise in Act Two by having a white yuppie couple, played by Annie Parisse and Jeremy Shamos, buy this same house 50 years later, in 2009. Integration has become gentrification as white professionals, wanting to avoid long commutes to their downtown jobs, reclaim the neighborhoods their parents had fled.

 The only white character in Raisin, Karl Lindner, appears in Norris’s Act One, played by Shamos. (All of the actors appear in each act as different characters.) His mission is the same in both plays. As the head of the Clybourne Park neighborhood association, he attempts to prevent the integration of his community. In Hansberry’s play we see how this affects the black family after he visits them and tries to pay them off to stay out of his world. In Norris’s, we see his attempts to do the same with the white family.

 In Act Two, a black couple, played by Crystal A. Dickinson and Damon Gupton, represent the neighborhood association in an area now largely Africa-American. They are worried that the yuppies’ plans to tear down the house and build a larger one will destroy the “historical value” of the community.

 That historical value was black ownership of a sturdy house in a decent neighborhood. As Lena Younger, the family matriarch in A Raisin in the Sun, explains it to her son, “It’s just a plain little old house, but it’s made good and solid, and it will be ours. Walter Lee, it makes a difference in a man when he can walk on floors that belong to him.”

 The 2009 house holds special memories for a new Lena, representing the current community association, because it was her great aunt who who bought it a half century before. Now she is the one who doesn’t want Clybourne Park to change. “It happens one house at a time,” she says, echoing a comment made by Karl in Act One, as well as in Raisin when he explained his reasons for not disrupting the racial balance. “It is a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing, rightly or wrongly, as I say, for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.”

 Prophetically, it is the daughter of the first Younger family, in Raisin, who sums up what seems to the at the philosophical crux of Norris’s play. “An end to misery,” she asks. “To stupidity! Don’t you see there isn’t any real progress, there is only one large circle that we march in, around and around, each of us with our own little picture in front of us, our own little image that we think is the future.”

 That’s the kind of dialogue I missed in Norris’s play. I know he wanted to satirize the misunderstandings and mistrust between the races from one generation to the next, but his characters, and especially their conversations, seemed forced, more like talking points for a discussion of race than people interacting, however poorly. I felt only mildly involved on an intellectual level, and not at all on an emotional one. I guess I’m just not ready to welcome this newcomer into Hansberry’s artistic neighborhood.

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