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.
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.)
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.
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.