Bruce Norris, the author of Clybourne Park, must be Chicago’s best known secret, for it is in the Windy City that the Steppenwolf Theatre has premiered six of his previous plays, beginning in 2000. Clybourne Park was the first to reach here in 2010 with an Off Broadway run, and after spending a thrilling evening with the Broadway production of this Pulitzer Prize winning play, I’m certain the others will be popping up all over the place.In a burst of daring creative energy, Mr. Norris has written himself a blockbuster of a play, a sort of prequel and sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s eye opening and memorable A Raisin in the Sun. In two acts, one set in 1959, the other in 2009, we are exposed to two sets of characters, each played by the same actors, all of it in the house in Clybourne Park into which Lena Younger and her family will move at the end of the Hansberry play. The Youngers took advantage of a greatly reduced price in order to be able to afford to move into what was a predominantly white neighborhood in the ’50s.
As Clybourne Park begins, a white family living in this middle class white community is about to move to the picket fenced suburbs having sold their home to a black family (not named, but they are in fact the Youngers from the Hansberry play.) The neighborhood association having discovered that fact, goes into action and its representative stops by to urge them not to sell, not to move. Here Mr. Norris borrows the character of “Karl Lindner” from Ms. Hansberry, for Lindner is the same representative of the Clybourne Park who, in Raisin in the Sun, tries to dissuade the Youngers from becoming the first black family to join them as neighbors.
Though Lindner uses every argument he can muster, he fails. The seller claims his move will bring him much closer to his workplace, but there is a more deeply felt reason for his move. Something happened in this house, the memory of which haunts him and his neurotically unhappy wife, and he is resolute.
Norris fills this first act with the kind of dialogue that sizzles and grates and through it he creates a half dozen vividly drawn and unlikeable people. Unlikeable yes, but arresting and interesting. The sudden change in mood as the act closes is masterfully written, staged and played by this tightly knit ensemble cast, each of whom is delivering a star turn.
There are connections here and there to people in the past, and it is Mr. Norris’ view that though the externals are different, and the races mix on a more even playing field, when the differing values are exposed, when the cultural clashes are forced into the open, all hell can and does break through.
Again, an ending that takes us back to the beginning, is a surprise, a haunting surprise and it eloquently concludes a very special evening in the theatre. Thought provoking, close to the bone infighting, and, on occasion, hilariously funny as well, the Pulitzer committee chose well in honoring it.
I’ve not mentioned the actors by name but there are seven of them, all quite extraordinary, in some cases giving very brave performances. Christina Kirk as the wife in the first act and an attorney in the second, and Jeremy Shamos as the neighborhood representative with a pregnant deaf wife in the first and the husband of a pregnant hearing wife in the second lead the pack as I reflect on the work of all seven, under the finely tuned direction of Pam McKinnon.
But only space prevents a discussion of each performance, for they are nuanced and full of detail so let’s just say that all, including Crystal Dickinson, Brendon Griffin, Damon Gupton, Annie Parisse and Frank Wood, should enjoy coming to work for months to come, for this whole package is a keeper.
Clybourne Park is at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W 48th St, NYC.
Details and tickets
Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
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