Bruce Norris won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this astonishing play not simply because of what he wrote, but for what he permits his actors to do. Most plays show characters uttering hard truths. Clybourne Park, full of outrageous wit and heartbreaking tragedy, shows characters lying, obfuscating, tap-dancing and changing the subject on the hardest subjects in America: race, racism, tribalism, cowardice and lack of compassion. When the truth finally explodes from them, it’s like one of Ridley Scott’s aliens bursting out of a human body: there is horror, disgust, and blood on the floor.
The actors must make us see through their character’s falsehoods by using their faces, bodies, subtle tonal changes – all the tools in their toolboxes other than the text. Thus Bev (Jennifer Mendenhall) must show, in her voice and brittle manner, that there is something amongst the mountain of trivia she shares with her husband Russ (Mitchell Hébert) which she cannot discuss, but must. And Albert (Jefferson A. Russell), an African-American man dragged into the middle of a sociological discussion conducted by bigots, must let us know the contempt in his answers without ever letting them see it. And Betsy (Kimberly Gilbert), a profoundly deaf woman, must allow us to see her dawning and panicked comprehension a half-dozen beats after everyone else has come to understand what has happened. And Dan (Hébert) must read a letter written fifty years ago from and to people he never met, and be convincingly reduced to tears.
All this, and more, must happen for this play to work as it should. And it does happen in Woolly Mammoth’s summer revival of its production from March of last year. It is the best ensemble acting I have ever seen.
In my life.
In order to appreciate the provocative and powerful story Norris lays upon our table, let’s review the bidding. You’ll remember from Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun (and if you haven’t seen or read this 1959 groundbreaking play, I recommend you do so – although it isn’t essential before seeing Clybourne Park) that Lena Younger, the matriarch of a three-generation African-American family living in a dilapidated slum, uses the proceeds of her husband’s life insurance to buy a home in the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood of Chicago, America’s most segregated city. In Clybourne Park, we get what Paul Harvey used to call the rest of the story.
Act I allows us to see the Youngers’ heroic act from the point of view of the white community which will become their reluctant neighbors. Let us begin with Karl Lindner (Cody Nickell), the only character Norris carries over from Raisin. In Raisin, Lindner seeks to persuade the Youngers not to move, and offers them more than they paid for the house if they do not. In Clybourne Park, Lindner is a linear continuation of the man we see in Raisin, driven and hypercautious and prone to euphemism (“I sure hope you people know what you’re getting into,” he says to the Youngers in Raisin, meaning that white people will throw rocks through their windows and maybe bomb them. In Clybourne Park he says “I’ll tell you what I can’t support, and that’s disregarding the needs of the people who live in a community,” by which he means he hates the idea of black people living in his neighborhood.)
But Lindner is no cardboard villain. He is tender and compassionate toward his deaf and pregnant wife (Gilbert is stone brilliant in this) and, though apparently not capable of empathy, at least makes an effort at good manners. He is no worse than anyone else in the neighborhood, which is represented by Jim (Michael Glenn, doing excellent work), a Presbyterian Minister who purports to find insuperable differences between blacks and whites because black people use tambourines in their worship services.
At the center of the trauma are Russ and Bev, who are selling their house to the Youngers. A very bad thing has happened to them, and their neighbors are full of euphemistically-expressed sympathy, particularly as they try to persuade Russ to reverse the decision to sell to the Youngers. But Russ sees through them, and the tsunami of rage that flows from him scours away not only their pious refusal to help him in his hour of need but the euphemisms with which they hide their racism.
Act II takes place fifty years later. The home that Russ and Bev sold to the Youngers – at the time, a sweet Chicago bungalow, full of Craftsman touches and Tiffany – has fallen into the hands of Steve and Lindsey (Nickell and Gilbert) a yuppie couple. They mean to tear it down and build a McMansion. This has caused an uproar, and as the Act begins, they and their lawyer Kathy (Mendenhall) are meeting with Kevin and Lena (Russell and Dawn Ursula), who are the heads of the neighborhood association, and their representative Tom (Glenn). They spend their time together – which is limited because of Tom’s schedule – not talking about the problem. They talk about everything else: what the capital of Morocco is; the food in Prague; Steve’s ability to ski; where Kathy’s folks went to church. Every time they approach a resolution someone gets a call on his cell phone, and talks at inordinate length in the next room while everyone else vamps.
Dan, who is tasked with setting up a koi pond for the yuppies, interrupts the confab to describe some problem he is having digging a trench, and the others seize on the opportunity to vamp some more. Steve and Lindsey are gentrifying the neighborhood, which is a process by which they drive up property values, increasing property taxes and ultimately making the neighborhood too expensive to sustain the other residents. Those other residents are compelled to sell their homes, albeit at a significant profit, just as Lindner wanted the Youngers to sell their home, at a profit. And, to add gasoline to the dry tinders, Steve and Lindsey are white, and the other residents are almost all African-American.
When the characters finally confront the issue between them, it is not in measured tones but in a series of disgusting jokes, which suggests that on matters of race (or perhaps anything of real importance) we cannot talk to each other, only scream. We are back to the war of all against all, the thin veneer of civilized non-talk scoured away by a rage as suppurating as the one Russ directed at his “community” at the end of Act I.
Woolly Mammoth issues Norris’ indictment of our talk and thought so masterfully that it is both artful and artless. It is artful in that it effortlessly invokes both the world of 1959 and the world fifty years later, getting the moral tone of each world right (James Kronzer’s magnificent set, which ages fifty years before our eyes during the intermission, is a great help).
It is artless in that there is not a writerly or actorly moment in the entire one hundred thirty minutes; during every one of those instants the characters are relentlessly themselves – whether we are talking about the precision with which Ursula and Jefferson are a deferential African-American maid and her husband in 1959 and self-confident community leaders in 2009, or the way that Glenn as Tom tries to suppress his laughter at a particularly raw joke Lena makes at Lindsey’s expense, or the magnificent way that Hébert transforms Russ, bit by fulminating bit, from a reasonable man who just wants to eat his ice cream to a volcano of avenging bile.
Had Howard Shalwitz, who built Woolly from nothing, done nothing in his life but direct this magnificent production, he would justly be remembered for a generation.
But Clybourne Park is more than just artful; it is art – the transformative sort of art which, like the much-honored play that inspired it, invites us to look the truth in the face and go from there. Raisin in the Sun made us grow up a little, and in so doing changed the face of American housing. See Clybourne Park, and get ready for the next step.
by Bruce Norris
Directed by Howard Shalwitz
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with one intermission
Note: In addition to the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Clybourne Park won the 2011 Laurence Olivier award for best new play, the 2010 Helen Hayes Award for outstanding resident play, and Howard Shalwitz received the Helen Hayes Award for outstanding director of a resident play.
- John Glass . DramaUrge
Gary Tischler . The Georgetowner
Abdul Ali . Washington City Paper
Clara Ritger . NorthernVirginia Magazine
Peter Marks . Washington Post
- Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
- Robert Powers . MDTheatreGuide
- Nancy Dunham . Examiner.com
- Logan Donaldson . BrightestYoungThings