ART hound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

review: Clybourne Park’s West Coast Premiere at A.C.T., extended through February 20, 2011

In Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park at A.C.T. through February 20, 2011, Beverly (A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen) and Russ (A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco), a married couple in 1959, are packing to leave their family home. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

From all the critical buzz about playwright Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, and its recent extension at San Francisco’s A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre) until February 20, you would think it was hilarious or riveting, but I found it neither.  The play, which has its West Coast premiere at A.C.T. and is directed locally by Jonathan Moscone, is so full of dumbed-down humor in Act 1, that you may not appreciate Act 2 where it all comes together.  Is this the reaction renowned provocateur Norris was aiming for in this button pusher about urban development and race?   If you like your repartee razor-sharp, steer clear of this production of Clybourne Park.   If you can hang through the first hour, you will find the story in Act 2 builds to a quite provocative end.  If you’ve read it’s funny and are expecting to laugh a lot, this is not that type of funny…this is nervous laughter that pops out and then sits by you.  

The idea of “neighborhood” in a major American city as seen through a house and its ownership, white and black, over a period of 50-odd years is a fascinating topic.  Playwright Bruce Norris takes the events of Lorraine Hansbury’s acclaimed play 1959 A Raisin in the Sun and spins a new story about race and real estate in America that picks up where that play ends.  Clybourne Park was the fictitious all-white Chicago neighborhood that the African American Younger family was moving to at the end of Hansbury’s play.   The move to the house symbolized promise—access to a broad range of resources, including school funding, infrastructure, and law enforcement that would mean a much better quality of life that would lead to a better future.   

In Norris’ Clybourne Park, we visit the same Younger house in two different eras, a half-century apart.  Act 1 is set in 1957 Clybourne Park,  just after Russ and Bev Stollers, a white couple, have unknowingly sold their house to a black family, the Youngers.  Act 2 is set in the same house in 2009 but the situation is reversed: the now-black neighborhood is gentrifying and a black couple is selling to a white couple who are planning to rebuild on that property and upset the neighborhood.  The dialogue is very similar to the one that transpired 50 years earlier in the house.  Times have changed but the concept of white privilege remains embedded in the culture of home ownership and people still have very hard time knowing what their biases are unless, of course, they are actually thrown into a situation that forces them out.  Enter Norris.  

Neighborhood association representative Karl (Richard Thieriot, left) discusses the sale of the house with Russ (A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco), while their wives, Betsy (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program student Emily Kitchens, back left) and Beverly (A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen), make conversation. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

As the play opens, Russ (Anthony Fusco) and Bev (René Augesen) Stoller are in the process of packing up their home to relocate to Glen Meadow, a suburb outside Chicago.  Their African American housekeeper, Francine (Omozé Idehenre), is helping them.  Apron-clad Bev is heavily channeling June Cleaver and hovering over Russ but it’s too overdone, detracting.  She starts up a phonics word game about capital cities that is funny up to a point and then grinds.  Was that what substituted for meaningful conversation back then?  The way characters farcically embody their roles in Act 1 is frustrating….is that the point? 

Francine’s work shift has ended but Bev hints that she wants her to move a huge trunk upstairs and offers her a silver chafing dish, one that she pronounces she has no use for and which we assume Francine will not need either (because she is not of a class that entertains with sterling) but will accept.  Bev then takes back the offer.  Francine holds her tongue.   And so it begins…a series of gestures and phrases that form a collection of biases, universal biases, that Norris serves up and keeps simmering all night long.

The elephant in the room for the couple is the tragic loss of their son and Russ’ depression. Since their son, Kenneth, committed suicide in the home two and half years ago, it has come to be a place of pain and Russ has been unable to talk about his loss.  Bev sees their move as a fresh start. 

When Francine’s husband, Albert (Gregory Wallace), arrives to pick her up, the action kicks into high gear.  While Albert awkwardly waits, the minister, Jim (Manoel Felciano), arrives for a house call and attempts to counsel Russ which goes over horribly.  Then, Karl Lindner (Richard Thieriot), a representative from the neighborhood community association, and Karl’s deaf pregnant wife Betsy (Emily Kitchens) arrive.

The discussion, which unfolds in front of Albert, focuses on the fact that new buyers are black and the likely negative impact on property values in the neighborhood and that there are differences between blacks and whites that will make the move into the neighborhood awkward…. for the new Black residents.  It starts with what foods the neighborhood stores stock (blacks and white eat differently) and culminates in Karl’s absurd argument that blacks don’t downhill ski  (and therefore won’t enjoy the sports that other residents do.)

In 2009, neighbors Lena (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Omozé Idehenre, right) and Kevin (A.C.T. core acting company member Gregory Wallace, second from right), with their lawyer, Tom (A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano, center), meet with new homeowners Lindsey (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Emily Kitchens) and Steve (Richard Thieriot), who are planning to drastically remodel the house. Photo by Erik Tomasson

Russ won’t change his mind about the sale, distancing himself from their claims that he has a responsibility to protect the community.  He feels that the community betrayed his son when he returned traumatized from Korea and that he and his wife were treated horribly after Kenneth’s suicide.  By intermission we are grappling both with what appeared to be a simplistic presentiation about racial bias in the 1950’s–none of us were alive to really know— and the loss of the son.

In Act 2, set in 2009, a group is gathered in the same living room about to wade through some legal documents and a petition protesting the proposed renovation of the house by the white new owners who are moving from the Glen Meadow suburb into Clybourne Park and are planning to build a much bigger house on the property.  The current owners are black and the suburb is now all-black and the property owners association wants to ensure that the re-do proposed for the home by the new white owners is consistent with the aesthetic of this “historically significant” (black) neighborhood. 

The discussion gets more and more inane, zeroing in on building codes and specs, and rehashing the proposed building’s height and scale, while the topic of race is circled round and round.  Norris has cleverly incorporated several people from Act 1, reintroducing them in tangentially related roles—–Bev now plays a savvy lawyer named Kathy who is representing the young white couple buying the home and Lena (Omozé Idehenre, who played the maid Francine in Act 1) is the grandniece of the Younger family matriarch (from Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun) who wants to do right by the neighborhood, meaning protect it black character. 

Lena (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Omozé Idehenre) and her husband, Kevin (A.C.T. core acting company member Gregory Wallace), have drafted a petition protesting the new design of the house. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

No one will come out in the open about how a white owner will change things. It gets heated very quickly though when race is addressed directly, culminating in an unexpected exchange of blatantly sexist and racist jokes that leaves everyone flabbergasted.  Lena’s zinger “How is a white woman like a tampon?  brings the audience fully into the drama as people melt down in uncomfortable laughter.   All to show what prejudices still lie buried in supposedly liberal people like them–AND us.  

The play concludes by unearthing the trunk from Act 1 and wrapping the subplot about the Kenneth, the young vet who committed suicide in the house, another chapter in America’s unease.

Post – Play Discussions “Experts Talk Back”: Thursday, February 10, 2011:  After the 8 p.m. performance, A.C.T. presents a new post-show discussion program “Experts Talk Back.” Stanford University Professor Michael Kahan, a specialist in 19th and 20th –century social history, will be in conversation with Scott Miller of the Oakland Zoning Commission. Free admission with performance ticket.  

Details:Clybourne Park plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, through February 20, 2011. Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at A.C.T. online box office.

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February 7, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Petaluma Cinema Series 15 fabulous films on Wednesday Nights through May

In Frederick Marx's Journey from Zanskar, screening at the Petaluma Film Series this Wednesday, a road threatens the indigenous Zanskar's culture and unbroken Budhist traitions children are sent to a special school to preserve the language and culture. Photo: Nick Sherman

The 4th season of the Petaluma Cinema Series is underway.  Bay Area award-winning filmmaker Frederick Marx’s 2010 documentary,  Journey from Zanskar, screens Wednesday, February 9, 2011 at 7 p.m. at the Carole L. Ellis Auditorium on Santa Rosa Junior College’s Petaluma campus.  Frederick Marx will be in conversation with Mike Traina, series organizer and SRJC Film Instructor, at 6 p.m. and the community is encouraged to attend. 

The Petaluma Cinema Series offers 15 films in 15 weeks every fall and spring in conjunction with the SJRC’s fall and spring semesters.  The series mixes community and guests with film students in a cinemateque environment and is sponsored by the Petaluma Film Alliance, a strategic partnership between the SRJC, community businesses, and private individuals dedicated to film awareness within the community.  The Ellis Auditorium is a spectacular film facility, offering HD, full surround sound and new seating.  

Mike Traina has organized both the series and the alliance and is excited about its potential. The overriding objective is to showcase a balanced blend of foreign, classic, and independent films and to create a progression that showcases film techniques for the students who are taking it as a class.  The first third of the films are about the filmmaker’s journey and a broad introduction to film appreciation at a more advanced level.  In the middle block, each film is selected to showcase a particular aspect of film aesthetics–production design, cinematography, sound, or acting.  The last third is special topics– animation, film noir, surrealism.  And because the college emphasizes special calendar events—black history month, so forth–I try to create some overlap within the cinema series.  In March, all of the introductions will have some focus on women in the industry.  I’ve got two directors–Jacqueline Zünd will be in conversation about Goodnight Nobody and I’ll screen Mira Nair’s film Monsoon Wedding which I’m also using to highlight its cinematography.  I’ve got two icons too— Elizabeth Taylor and Marlena Dietrich.

Fredrick Marx’s Journey from Zanskar, screening Wednesday with Marx in the pre-film discussion, was very popular with audiences at the Mill Valley Film Festival last October.  The 90 minute documentary tells a moving and important story about the heroism of monks and children who are trying to preserve Tibetan culture.  Like many documentaries in this genre, the film is also controversial and has been criticized (Zanskar Resource) for its role in creating a situation that will popularize Zanskar and thereby accelerate the destruction of its untainted culture and traditions.

For Mike Traina, including the film in the series was an easy choice “Marx is a long time Bay Area filmmaker and I like to showcase work that is produced in Bay Area and filmmakers who try to work outside the industry and he has done this quite successfully.  His Hoop Dreams, about boys and basketball, was nominated for an Oscar in 1995.   He’s also trying to raise awareness about Zanskar and has a nonprofit related to roads and schools in the region.  Anytime we can bring a filmmaker of this caliber in and provide the community with direct access, we try to do it.”

Petaluma Cinema Series line-up:

February 9: Journey from Zanskar (Frederick Marx, 2010, USA)

February 16: Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembene, 2004, Senegal)  Moolaadé tells the extraordinary tale of a brave West African woman who decides to shelter four little girls from the torturous (and sometimes fatal) procedure of female circumcision, a traditional rite of passage in her village. This sumptuously shot and thought-provoking film, directed by the African continent’s most internationally acclaimed filmmaker, elegantly addresses one of the most controversial issues of our age. 

February 23: Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001, Mexico)  Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna star in this sexy coming-of-age road movie. Acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron explores the sensual and chaotic relationships between the three central characters as well as the socio-political changes taking place in Mexico itself, ultimately offering the viewer powerful lessons concerning life, love, and growing up.

March 2: The Blue Angel (Joseph von Sternberg, 1930, Germany)  Joseph Von Sternberg’s 1930 expressionist classic uses memorable performances and extraordinary visual design to tell the story of a pretentious professor (Emil Jannings) and the seductive cabaret singer (Marlene Dietrich) who manipulates him into despair and shame. A relentless, twisted tragedy of repression and moral degradation, The Blue Angel is a milestone in the expressionist canon and a portrait of crumbling Weimar Germany.

March 9: Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair, 2001, India)  Cultures and families collide in Mira Nair’s exuberant Bollywood tale of five interweaving love stories set against the background of an arranged Indian marriage. Cathartic and colorful, this entertaining crowd pleaser has warmed the hearts of audiences around the world and become one of India’s biggest global box office sensations.

March 16: Goodnight Nobody (Jacqueline Zünd, 2010, Switzerland)

March 30: A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951, USA)

April 6: Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980, USA)

April 13: The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974, USA)

April 20: The Big Animal (Jerzy Stuhr, 2000, Poland)

April 27: Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944, USA)

May 4: Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009, USA)

May 11: You, the Living (Roy Anderson, 2007, Sweden)

May 18: Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977, USA)

Details: Wednesday evenings from February 9 through May 18, 2011.  Pre-film lectures at 6 p.m.  Films at 7 p.m.  Theatre seats 257 persons with handicap accessibility.  General Admission $5, Seniors and PFA members $4, Individual Series Pass $40, Students with ASP card free.  Box office is open from 5:30-7:15 p.m. on Wednesday nights.

Parking: On campus parking is $4 and visitors to the campus will need $4 in change or crisp bills to purchase a dashboard parking pass from the yellow machines in the parking lots. The machines do not give change.  The pass is good until midnight.

Special Cinema Series Parking Passes:  Those attending the series can purchase a $20 series parking pass at the box office at Carole L. Ellis Auditorium to display on their dashboards which will cover parking from 5 p.m. onward on evenings that films are screening thus avoiding SRJC’s yellow parking machine experience altogether.  

For additional information email:  info@petalumafilmfest.org  or http://www.petalumafilmfest.org/home/Petaluma_Film_Alliance.html

February 7, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment