“You gotta getta gimmick,” as they say, and playwright Bruce Norris has gotten hold of a helluva one in Clybourne Park.
His play picks up where Lorraine Hansberry‘s 1959 racial-progress classic A Raisin in the Sun left off. In fact, it’s set in the same Chicago house that play’s black family moves into at the end, and this time we can see the creepy machinations that allowed that triumph to happen in the first place.
Norris’s Act One takes place in 1959, when a white couple is selling their house to Hansberry’s Younger family, the whites anxious to move after their son committed suicide in the wake of a disgraced exit from the Korean War.
The unhinged but chirpy wife (a very funny Christina Kirk) babbles her head off about all kinds of minutiae, particularly geographical misinformation. (The woman obviously has no sense whatsoever of anything outside her own four walls.)
She also brims with patronizing good feelings toward the unseen black family, as well as to her domestic and her husband (Crystal A Dickinson and Damon Gupton), who can see right through her ditzy condescension.
Meanwhile, a neighborhood rep (Jeremy Shamos) is desperate for Kirk’s hubby (Frank Wood) to undo the sale to the blacks, but he refuses–not out of any good feelings, mind you, but because he wants to screw the neighborhood, which turned their back on his son when he came home from war in dishonor!
In discussing his contempt, Wood spits out the word “community” as if it were an expletive, and our theme is set–the way hierarchies and bigotries make our society way less than inclusive, though some are even less included than others.
Jump ahead 50 years for Act Two, and the same actors (also including Annie Parisse and Brendan Griffin) are playing roles that often parallel or have some relation to the ones they played in the first half.
Parisse is still pregnant; Griffin–first a priest–is now a gay; Kirk still has trouble with geography; and Dickinson is now the great niece of Lena Younger, the prideful matriarch of the Hansberry play.
And while things have changed, the condescension hasn’t.
The neighborhood is on an upswing, and a white couple is planning to rebuild the place, making the black couple selling it bristle with wariness. That leads to a self-conscious exchange of barbs, followed by a battle of racist jokes that purposely makes us squirm as we laugh uproariously at them.
The play is generally pretty dry, but the well intentioned points of view, politically correct self-defenses, and sardonic flareups catch comic fire under Pam MacKinnon‘s direction.
While the white folk generally come off clueless, tasteless, or scheming, the largely liberal white audience ate it up the night I saw the show. (Nothing like guffawing over other silly whites.)
The result (and the coda) can be heavy handed but in the context of such a bold gimmick, the incisive Clybourne Park is worth spending 50 years with, especially since I’m guessing tourists are gonna hate this!