Crystal A. Dickinson, Brendan Griffin, Damon Gupton, Christina Kirk, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos, Frank Wood,
There’s a unique tension rumbling just below the surface of Bruce Norris’s masterful new play, Clybourne Park, currently playing at Playwrights Horizons. Tackling race with a comic touch is rarely easy, but Norris, over the course of two time-straddling acts, does so with aplomb, eliciting bursts of laughter that feel alternately discomfiting and cathartic.
A riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the first act of the play takes place in 1959 in a middle-class white home in the suburbs of Chicago, where married couple Bev and Russ seem content to argue over various countries’ capitals until their neighbor Karl bursts in, having just returned from the home of a black family (implicitly the Younger Family of Hansberry’s play) who’ve decided to purchase Bev’s and Russ’s house (Russ is moving up in his company, and they’re moving away). Karl tries unsuccessfully to persuade the couple to defend their neighborhood. Failing to do so, he invokes – as a threat – the memory of their son, a soldier whose mysterious death looms over their house.
Flash forward to 2009, and things seem to have reversed themselves on a number of counts. Two couples – one white, one black – are gathered to discuss a movement on the part of the city to make the very same house of the first act into a landmark, a movement that the black couple supports as a means of protecting the area’s cultural heritage but which would prevent the white couple from making drastic renovations to the property that are scheduled to proceed in a matter of days.
Norris’s skill is in connecting his two chosen time periods without resorting to overly literal parallels. Despite the modern-day characters’ connections to their predecessors in act one, their stories are at once the same and vastly different. Now, in a post-politically-correct era, racist jokes are suddenly funny again, except when they’re not. And though the phenomenon of white flight has subsided, in its place is the gentrification of urban (and suburban) neighborhoods by rampant Whole Foods junkies whose upwardly mobile ways threaten small businesses (issues that August Wilson also addressed, particularly in his last play, Radio Golf).
Though Clybourne Park addresses all these topics, it somehow seems more complicated than a mere “issues play” and less prepared to resort to easy answers. After the first-act secrets of the house are revealed to the white couple in Act Two, the pieces of the puzzle come together in a moving final scene that brings together the past and the present in stunning theatrical terms. Norris knows not only how to write sharp dialogue but also how to set up unique situations on-stage.
His expertly crafted play is supported by a cohesive ensemble cast, headed by Christina Kirk as cheery housewife Bev and Frank Wood as her steely husband Russ in the first act, both of whom play two other characters as the scene shifts to the present day. Damon Gupton and Crystal A. Dickinson are similarly excellent as two black couples, one in the past and one in the present. While in the first act, Dickinson plays Bev’s and Frank’s maid, in the second act the black couple are on equal footing with the whites (and, in the era of Obama, are perhaps even in a position of power – at least in terms of the local government).
As the differences between then and now begin to break down and the racist jokes begin to fly (as a result of some gentle teasing gone awry), it’s clear to see that though much has changed in terms of socioeconomic boundaries (at least in this insular neighborhood), the language of expressing that change has changed just as much. Norris’s gift is charting that change (and its complexities). Rather than giving us an easy-to-digest piece on race, he’s given us something as multifaceted and rare as Clybourne Park, and audiences should be grateful.