nytheatre.com review by Robert Attenweiler
April 18, 2012
Somewhere along the line I must have missed the story about how the Avenue Q song “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” was adapted into a two-act straight play with enough chops to win the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.
Okay, that’s me joking. Mostly. There is no evidence that I’m aware of that playwright Bruce Norris was directly inspired by that memorable musical number that put the unpleasantness about contemporary America’s relationship with race into a catchy, digestible form. But there are enough intersections that I was humming the Avenue Q song as I left seeing Clybourne Park.
This is not meant to minimize the impact of this smart and hugely entertaining play, just to point out that Clybourne Park is largely a dissertation—an acting out of ideas—ideas, for instance, like the fact that everyone may, after all, be just a little bit racist.
The two acts of the play take place in the same house on Clybourne Street in Chicago that became home to the Younger family in Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play A Raisin in the Sun. It’s 1959 in Act 1 as husband and wife Russ (Frank Wood) and Bev (Christina Kirk) prepare to move from Clybourne Park to the suburbs. The couple, in the true spirit of the 1950s, have a painful secret that they are doing everything in their power not to talk about. Slowly, the secret they are keeping—the reason they need to move so badly—is teased out, then exposed and laid bare before their friends and neighbors. One of those neighbors, Karl (Jeremy Shamos), has learned that Russ and Bev have sold the house to an African American family and tries to convince them not to sell, with all of the misplaced propriety and transparent civility that we have come to expect when watching people of a different era try to talk about race. This culminates in the white characters questioning the couple’s domestic, Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson), and her husband, Albert (Damon Gupton), about whether they would ever find it desirable to move into a neighborhood like Clybourne Park.
Act 2 jumps ahead 50 years to 2009. Now, a white couple Lindsey (Annie Parisse) and Steve (Shamos) are moving into the now predominately black neighborhood with plans to tear down the house and rebuild. They meet with Lena (Dickinson) and Kevin (Gupton) to hash out the details of how the new home will maintain the integrity of the historic neighborhood. It’s 50 years later and, guess what, we still have a problematic relationship with race. The negotiation soon deteriorates into a scene—already a classic—where the characters tell racist, sexist and homophobic jokes showing, perhaps, how little has changed since 1959.
Clybourne Park is an incredibly smart play and one of the smartest things that Norris, director Pam MacKinnon, and their fantastic cast do is to play up the comedy of all of the cringe-inducing moments where characters end up talking around what they mean so much that they get trapped by their words and have to come out and say what they’re thinking. What they’re thinking is often racist, always driven by self-interest and, largely, hilarious. Wood, Kirk and Shamos lead a stand-out cast and MacKinnon shapes a clear, fast-paced production that never goes so broad that we miss the ways in which the play is reflecting something very real. Norris is a very talented writer who is able to raise up a wave with his words that he then rides through a work that wonderfully marries comedy and thoughtful insight.
The only thing that wasn’t satisfying about the play, though—and the thing that makes me bring up the “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” comparison—is that the play is light on story, especially in its second act. So, for all the wonderful acting and great writing, the play doesn’t stick to my ribs because so much of the play seems set up to have these characters talk about what (the idea is) no one wants to talk about. The moments when Norris tries to connect the two acts (Lena is a descended from the Younger family, and a military footlocker, buried in Act 1, is uncovered in Act 2) come across as a little transparent and don’t carry a ton of weight.
Still, the play remains a huge entertainment and the ideas that it leaves with its audience are absolutely relevant and worth such a pleasing discussion.