The relationship between home, history and hatred is potently explored in Bruce Norris’ edgy living room comedy Clybourne Park, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning play now housed at CenterStage in a dandy production directed with verve by Derrick Sanders.
The idea of home in this play is bigger than four walls. Home is the place where you stake your claim, where you put down your roots and proclaim “I am here.” Home is your identity, how your neighbors and the community see you. Home is your pride, the face you show to the world. Home is a place you make pretty, but also show your ugliness when you let your hair down once safely inside.
Home in Clybourne Park is also a physical space. Central to the play’s themes and action is 406 Clybourne Street, the house that Mama Younger sacrificed to buy for her family in Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. Going from a cramped tenement apartment to a bungalow represents freedom and promise for the Youngers, but also uncertainty and rebellion as they will be the first black family to move into an all-white Chicago neighborhood.
In a zippy first act that resembles a ‘50s sitcom turned on its ear, Mr. Norris imagines the developments from Raisin from the sellers’ point of view. Russ (Jonathan Crombie) and Bev (Beth Hylton) are in the final throes of packing for a move to a Chicago suburb. Russ brags about the new six-minute commute to his suburban office, but beneath the joy is a tugging current of despair once we learn the real reason behind their fresh start. The house has just gotten too crowded with memories, especially those pertaining to their son, a Korean War veteran.
Bev’s chipper bustling, aided by the seemingly unending patience of her black maid Francine (Jessica Frances Dukes), is contrasted by the mopey puttering of Russ, who sits around in his bathrobe eating ice cream and reading magazines. Their Saturday is interrupted by a succession of visitors—first, the unctuous local pastor Jim (Jacob H. Knoll), followed by Karl Lindner (James Ludwig), the head of the neighborhood association, and his wife Betsy (Jenna Sokolowski). Haplessly thrown into the mix is Albert (Charlie Hudson, III) who drops by to pick up Francine from work.
Karl does not come for a social visit. He was a character in Raisin, the neighborhood representative who tries to buy back the house from the Youngers and he appears here to persuade Russ and Bev to halt the sale. Apparently, they used a third party to sell the house and were unaware that it was going to, in Karl’s parlance, a “colored” family.
For all his Midwestern niceness, Karl is a terrier when it comes getting what he wants. Despite Bev’s blithering that perhaps the black family “has needs too” and Russ’s seeming not to give a fig who moves in the neighborhood, Karl keeps blasting away like a talking nail gun. He believes in change for the better—but black neighbors aren’t his idea of progress. In a way, it’s a blessing his wife is deaf and can’t hear him.
Mr. Norris crafts crackling, pointed dialogue full of satisfying zingers volleyed back and forth between the characters. The audience gets great pleasure in these exchanges, but what is interesting about Clybourne is that with the characters, no one actually hears each other or listens to what anyone is saying.
Bev chatters like a perky 50s housewife while Russ mutters and ruminates—they occupy the same space but are worlds apart. Bev chats at her maid Francine, never bothering to wait for her responses. Francine and her husband are experts at polite, superficial conversations with white people, pretty much nodding while ignoring everything they say. This all comes to a head in one brilliant, telling scene when Albert finally gets enough of Bev blithely pushing her castoffs onto them, pointing out “We don’t want your things. We got our own things.”
Everything flips in Act 2, which takes place in 2009. Same location, except the house has fallen into great neglect (kudos to set designer Jack Magaw for creating a cozy, wood-trimmed haven in Act One that turns into a cold, derelict space in Act Two). A white couple, Lindsey (Miss Sokolowski) and Steve (Mr. Ludwig), bought the bungalow and have grand plans for renovation, which involve demolition and erecting a McMansion. This causes controversy in the proudly gentrified neighborhood, and a black couple Kevin (Mr. Hudson) and Lena (Miss Dukes) have petitioned the plans and brought in their lawyer Tom (Mr. Knoll).
With quiet passion, Lena asks the couple to respect and value these neighborhood houses because they represent so much more to the residents than bricks and drywall. These homes signify their struggle and their history—good and bad.
Lindsey and Steve also have a lawyer Kathy (Miss Hylton), who has unexpected ties to the neighborhood. The group hash out the details, starting out painfully politically correct until the gloves come off and everybody just has at it after Steve thinks it is acceptable to tell a racist joke because a black co-worker told it to him.
That move unleashes a flood of hilarious and painful improprieties, including a joke-off where everyone vies to deliver the most offensive ethnic punch line. There is great catharsis in laughing at a wildly insulting joke—both for the characters and the audience.
The play ends on a haunting grace note as the past of the house arises in the present, showing that the memories and spirit of this home reside deep in its bones and will never be erased no matter what.
An assured and arresting cast brings out both the humor and the nuances of a play echoing between time. The cast portrays the resonances and coincidences between the two eras without overdoing it.
Closes June 16, 2013
700 North Calvert Street
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $60
Tuesdays thru Sundays
As Karl, Mr. Ludwig oozes smug righteousness as he presents his arguments and traces of Karl’s racist thoughts show up in Steve, the clueless loose cannon. Miss Sokolowski excels as the carefully controlling Lindsay and also as the deaf but very acute Betsy.
Your eye tends to constantly stray during the play to Miss Dukes’ compelling performances, first as Francine, whose practiced placidness and dignity belies long-simmering resentments. This well-constructed coolness is seen again in the character of Lena, who tries to hide her wounds and scorned pride until she just can’t take it anymore.
You may have seen Clybourne Park at Woolly Mammoth’s excellent production. But CenterStage has done such a dazzling job with the play you just might want to visit the Clybourne neighborhood a second time.
Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris . Directed by Derrick Sanders . Featuring James Ludwig, Jessica Frances Dukes, Beth Hylton; Jenna Sokolowski, Jacob H Knoll and Charlie Hudson, III . Scenic Design: Jack Magaw, Costume Design: Reggie Ray, Lighting Design; Thom Weaver, Sound Design: Elisheba Ittoop, Hair and Wig designer: Greg Bazemore, Dramaturg: Gavin Witt, Dialectg: Evamarii, Casting: Tara Rubin, Stage Manager, Laura Smith, Assist Stage Manager, Captain Kate Murphy. Produced by CenterStage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.