NEW YORK — There’s more hesitancy and anticipation in the air of Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre than most courtrooms on the day of the big verdict. The reason begins and ends with an issue that still confounds American society: race relations, and how to broach the subject without stepping on a land mine.
In Clybourne Park, the brilliant Pulitzer-Prize winning play from Bruce Norris, white characters and black characters try to hold civil conversations, but their prejudices and preconceived notions get the better of them. The end result is a deep look at our limitations and obvious uncomfortableness with bridging the gap between different cultures.
In Act I, we visit a charming house in the neighborhood of Clybourne Park, circa 1959. Anyone who remembers Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun will recognize that Norris’ story is the other side of the equation. In Hansberry’s classic text, a black family attempts to move into a predominantly white suburb of Chicago. Clybourne Park gives us a window into the white family on the other end and why they’re selling their house.
Russ (Frank Wood) and Bev (Christina Kirk) put on the facade of a loving married couple, but their hurt runs deep. They’ve endured the loss of a child, and they want out of the neighborhood. A move away from Clybourne Park will help with the work commute for Russ and hopefully leave behind some bad memories.
But all doesn’t go well with the sale. Karl (Jeremy Shamos) and his wife, Betsy (Annie Parisse), a local couple, turn up on the doorstep looking to visit Russ and Bev as they pack up the house. Karl’s concern is that having a black family move in will decrease the property value of nearby houses and forever change the suburban setting. Russ and Bev, still unable to cope with their son’s death, cannot believe the heartlessness of Karl’s request to stop the sale. Even the local minister, Jim (Brendan Griffin), seems to agree that the Youngers (who are never mentioned specifically) would change the dynamic of the street.
Within earshot of this hurtful language is Russ and Bev’s black maid, Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband Albert (Damon Gupton). They try to keep quiet, but find it difficult to bite their lips for too long.
Act II flashes forward 50 years to 2009 (kudos to scenic designer Daniel Ostling for the transition). Clybourne Park is now predominantly African-American, and the dilapidated house is ready to change hands once again. This time, a white couple is looking to demolish the structure and build from scratch, but the local property owners’ association is afraid of the possible gentrification.
All of the actors from the first act play alternate characters in the second act, but there are unspoken similarities between the two. In 2009, Steve (Shamos) and Lindsey (Parisse) are the new white couple in town, while Lena (Dickinson) and Kevin (Gupton) are the ones raising questions.
The premise of shifting gears at intermission sounds more confusing than it proves to be on the Walter Kerr stage. Norris has a deft hand at keeping everything focused and understandable. We come to know these characters by the language they use and the language they refrain from using. Each word dealing with race is carefully chosen, and many times, characters make the mistake of going too far. Everyone shows some inoffensiveness at one point or another, but it’s all done in a subtle, progressively uneasy manner. These creations don’t always show their true colors right from the start. It takes some time to get to know them and see how they react under pressure.
The acting is excellent, and that’s probably a credit to Clybourne Park’s long trek to Broadway. Originally seen off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, the play has traveled to London and Los Angeles before landing on the Great White Way. The story of this house and its occupants feels right at home in a bigger theater. The Walter Kerr may seat hundreds of people, but it still cannot contain the gravity of the topics discussed in the play.
For all the serious subject matter discussed, Norris knows how to keep things comical — one could even say farcical. There are more laughs than tears over the inanity of what spews from people’s mouths. A white character that criticizes marginalization will try to justify her speechifying by saying she has many black friends. These characters are convoluted, and sometimes they don’t even realize the hurt they can cause.
Wood is probably the best of the ensemble, mostly because of his portrayal of Russ, a perpetually grieving father. Kirk is pitch-perfect in the first act as Bev. She’s the definition of a 1950s housewife: beautiful dress, perfect hair, finely polished chafing dish in her hands. The actress has an uncanny line delivery that is hilarious; she highlights each comma or period with a corresponding shake of her arms, making for a total physical performance that is quite unique.
Dickinson is excellent in both her roles, balancing civility with self-respect. There’s also no topping the skill of Shamos. Although he’s given the most difficult roles in the play, the actor is able to ground his two people in reality, rather than exaggeration. There’s a lot to question about Karl and Steve, but the actor keeps us listening with ever-interested ears.
Pam MacKinnon directs the two-hour play at a brisk pace, letting the serious moments sink in and the comedic moments shine in the spotlight. A little more inventiveness for the second act would have been appreciated. As it’s staged, the actors sit in chairs and talk. Not much physical action occurs.
The lasting memory of Clybourne Park is not one of exclusive negativity. Despite all of the difficulty and prejudice, Norris still gives us many things to hope for, many things to ponder. The play is one that treats race relations not as a catch-all phrase with one easy solution. Race in the United States is complex and deserving of constant consideration, and Clybourne Park proves to be a perfect conversation starter.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Starring Crystal A. Dickinson, Brendan Griffin, Damon Gupton, Christina Kirk, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos and Frank Wood
Running time: 120 minutes
Currently playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre at 219 W. 48th St. in New York City. Click here for more information.