Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park is exceptionally well-written and politically/socially relevant. His efforts were rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play within the past few years. Eric Ting directs a superb ensemble of actors in a new production which continues at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre through June 2nd.
The script (with a huge nod to Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun) begins in 1959. One house in a Chicago neighborhood is owned by Bev (Alice Ripley) and Russ (Daniel Jenkins), white people who do not realize they are about to sell to the Youngers (reference, here, to the Hansberry play), who are black. Karl (Alex Moggridge) and his wife Betsy (Lucy Owen) want to convince Russ not to sell; Russ, is not aware that the Youngers are African-American. The Youngers are not seen during the production. Karl represents the local neighborhood association. Betsy happens to be deaf and she, by way of her performance, is wildly amusing during the first act. Jim (Jimmy Davis) is a smart-talking clergyman who is not especially helpful. Leroy McClain as Albert, and Melle Powers as Francine-the-maid are black people who express a divergent opinion. Much of the first act spins about persuading Russ not to sell. He, from the outset, is disagreeable and downright ornery. Before intermission, we learn the cause: Russ and Betsy tragically lost their son Kenneth after he came home from the Korean War. Russ just wants everyone out of his house: immediately!
Forward half a century as the conversation picks up in the same house and it is 2009. For the first act set designer Frank Alberino fully furnished the place, including well worn pieces. Now, however, the home is pretty much an open structure, and a collection of people sit on easy or kitchen chairs and makeshift seats. The participants, as outfitted by Linda Cho, wear jeans, T-shirts, shorts, sandals and so forth. Clybourne Park has become a black neighborhood which is becoming gentrified. Steve (Moggridge) and Lindsey (Owen) have purchased this building but intend to replace it with something new. A neighborhood association, with white and African-American members, along with lawyer Kathy (Ripley) attempt to reach some kind of an accord. Kevin (McClain) and Lena (Powers) make for an energized black couple and they are far from receptive to the ideas that Steve and Lindsey have for the house. The colloquial back-and-forth is heated, glibmost contemporary. Steve is initially reasonable but his initial demeanor does not hold.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Davis, who first played the priest, is a knowing real-estate guy in the second act. He has a final few riveting moments in the production, too, when he plays his third character. Actor Daniel Jenkins transforms from agitated Russ during the early going to a rough-hewn and really likable contractor/carpenter type during act two.
Norris's dialogue delves beneath the surface as it squarely addresses racial situations not only in Chicago but, by implication, elsewhere. Find an inner city neighborhood and this play's message might very well apply if not cogently reverberate. The writing, at times, draws focus upon the obvious, but the potency distinguishing Clybourne Park recommends that those observing will be reflective far beyond the final curtain. The playwright takes risks and he succeeds. When one writes and speaks of race (in this context and others), prejudice often hangs in the air and the matter of who deserves something and what might be fair vault into a virtual picture.
Director Ting deserves significant credit for lively pacing of the show while he still enables space for lines to be punctuated. The actors create balance as they debate, battle, talk around and through the volatile, thematic issues of the differing eras. Norris writes with humor, too. The intensity of the material benefits from humorous moments. The question remains: will there be a peaceful and proactive resolution for the better? People, generally speaking, are ever trying to figure out where to live. That choice is often predicated, to some extent, upon their prospective neighbors. Clybourne Park stands on its own merit as a separate work. Those who have familiarity with A Raisin in the Sun are further enriched. Hansberry, when a girl, suffered indignities as she walked to school. Playwright Norris, who has also been a film actor, continues the exploration of race in our time.
Clybourne Park continues at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut through June 2nd. For tickets, visit www.longwharf.org or call (203) 787-4282.
- Fred Sokol