February 13, 2010

Conversations about Race in "Clybourne Park"

How do we talk about race in the Age of Obama?  Well, this season, it seems that almost every other playwright—on and off Broadway—has something to say on the subject. David Mamet has his characters screaming about it in his new play Race. David Bryan and Joe DePietro have theirs singing about it in Memphis.  And now comes Chicago-based playwright Bruce Norris with Clybourne Park, a new work at Playwrights Horizons that offers an audacious riff on the ur-race play in the American theatrical canon: Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

The homage is divided into two very different acts.  The first, contemporaneous with Hansberry’s play, is set in the then all-white enclave of Clybourne Park in the home of the middle-aged couple whose house the black Younger family is preparing to move into when Raisin ends. The second act moves the action up 50 years to the present when an affluent young white couple is attempting to buy and renovate the same house in what during the intervening decades had become a poor black neighborhood. It’s the gentrification story that is playing out across the country as the children and grandchildren of white families that fled to the suburbs now flow back into the center city.

The seven members of the cast, well directed by Pam MacKinnon, play different roles in each act and it’s entertaining to watch such talented actors explore the varied colors in the their emotional palettes. Singling out one seems totally unfair to the others and yet I can’t help giving extra kudos to Frank Wood who changes so much from the first act to the second that I almost didn’t recognize him except that he was so good in both. 

The play’s subject is serious, and of course, sensitive. So Norris works hard to find common ground. There are no heroes or villains. There are a couple of emotional subplots so that everyone who’s ever felt oppressed—and really, who hasn’t—gets at least a nod of recognition. The characters form alliances across race and gender lines. Then break them and form others. Norris also throws in as many tension-relieving laughs as he can, particularly in the second act.

But long before the curtain call, I was feeling unsatisfied.  Very little gets resolved in either act and I found myself asking, “what’s the point?”  After the show, my theatergoing buddy Bill and I stood in the lobby debating the show as the rest of the audience filed out around us.  And who knows, maybe that’s the point of Clybourne Park: to get people talking—not arguing or lecturing or haranguing or justifying—just talking about race.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now. Keep it up!
And according to this article, I totally agree with your opinion, but only this time! :)