Thursday, July 26, 2012

Clybourne Park

Bruce Norris's Pulitzer-, Tony-, Olivier- and Evening Standard- award winning play Clybourne Park, which has been running since late March at the Walter Kerr Theater, is not perfect for all its accolades. There are some cheap jokes, played for belly laughs. Some of the characters are more well-developed than others. And some of the connections between characters from different eras are just a little too convenient. But the show works well for its flaws, which somehow manage, in some ways, to reinforce the playwright's grasp of and attempt to wrestle with race, class, gender, and language over several decades. Aren't we all sometimes sort of two-dimensional, crass, or even brutish in particular settings? Aren't we all as closely connected to the past as we are eager to push it behind us? Are we ever truly capable of real collective social change, or does our present always end up latching stubbornly onto the wriggling snake's tale of the past? Despite occasional missteps--which are maybe not missteps after all--Norris makes debate about this stuff seem easy, breezy, and often very, very funny.

Clybourne Park is set in the same house during two different eras. Act I takes place in 1959. A middle-aged white couple are preparing to move to a new neighborhood. As the nervously quirky, overly chipper Bev and her relentlessly downbeat husband Russ banter about the move, the derivation of the word "Neapolitan," and a footlocker that needs to be moved downstairs, they are gradually joined by their black maid, Francine, who is getting ready to go home; their pastor, Jim, who wants to talk with Russ about his depression; their neighbors, Karl and Betsy, who want to talk with Russ and Bev about the sale of their house; and Francine's husband, Albert, who has come to pick his wife up from work. While the white characters initially join Bev and Russ's light banter, talk soon gives way to deeper, more painful issues: a grown son who did terrible things before killing himself; a pregnancy that yielded a stillborn baby; the ways a community can uplift and foster; the ways a community can abandon and alienate. And there is a great deal of talk about the fact that Bev and Russ's home has been sold to a black family. It is only when the white characters begin this conversation in earnest that they take any real interest--and "real" is pushing it--in Albert and Francine.

Act II takes place in the same house--now empty and thoroughly dilapidated--in 2009. Now a historic, predominantly black neighborhood, Clybourne Park is attracting the interest of young, upwardly mobile white couples who covet the spacious homes and proximity to downtown Chicago. One such couple, Lindsey and Steve, have purchased the house and submitted plans to tear it down and build something taller, more ostentatious, and--you can just tell--way uglier in its place. The same cast members, in different yet overlapping roles, meet again in the house to go over the ordinances, discuss the plans, and air their concerns about the demolition and new construction. Light conversation--again, stemming from the derivations of words related to different geographical locations--results in a few asides that connect some of the characters to those in the first act: the lawyer representing the couple is the daughter of Karl and Betsy. Lena, who, with her husband Kevin, serves on the community board, is the niece of the woman who bought the house from Bev and Russ in 1959. Soon enough, the conversation turns again to race.

Morris draws a number of parallels between the first and second acts, while at the same time keeping both rooted in their time periods. In act I, race looms larger than gender and class in the minds of the characters, even as the playwright gently reminds us of the many ways they intersect. Talk is more direct when it touches on race in this pre-Civil Rights world; the white characters don't think twice about neatly erasing the black characters from the discussion--or from the room--until it becomes convenient to include them, whereupon they are blithely condescended to at every turn.

The second act is set in 2009, a year that the now-quaint term "postracial" was used most frequently in this country. The act is also, however, rooted in the post-Civil Rights--and post-second wave, post-Stonewall, post-PC, and postmodern era--and so language, perception, and discussion about race has become touchier, more nuanced, more layered, and thus, Morris implies, a lot harder to negotiate for pretty much the same ends. In light of the new complexities of language and meaning, Morris's use of cheap jokes and easy characterizations end up taking on a lot more weight in performance before a contemporary audience: what are we doing when we laugh at the racist jokes the characters hurl at each other in act II? Just how layered and informed are our reactions? Are we laughing ironically?

Morris concludes, quite cynically, that we haven't really changed at all, even though the ways we talk about race have become more nuanced, sophisticated, guarded. His play ends up back in 1959, just prior to the actions that take place in act one: For all the changes we've pushed for in this country, he deftly tells us, and for as often as we like to pride ourselves on being blind to class, gender, and racial differences, our big old snake of a culture just won't release its rattling tail from its iron-clad jaws.

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