By Bruce Norris
Directed by Amy Morton
At Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
“If I do my job correctly I should outrage people and have rotten vegetables thrown at me, that that would be the only proof that I had done something successfully. Like I said, it’s completely adolescent but that’s the instinct that I have. So when people like something that I’ve done and they pay for it, it’s very confusing to me. I don’t understand why they would be paying for it if I wrote it to upset them” – Bruce Norris
Thought provoking drama about racism sure to spark controversy.
Playwright Bruce Norris’ controversial nod to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, sets his look into race in America in 1959 at the home that the African-Americans purchased in the then all-white Clybourne Park. Norris’ drama presents the white perspective on the events that led Russ (John Judd) and Bev (Kristen Fitzgerald) to sell their Northwest Side Chicago home to a Black family.
Tight racial/ethnic communities isolated themselves by an agreement among home owners and realtors not to sell homes to groups determined to be “the others” – which could be Jews, Muslims, Mexicans or African-Americans. Norris looks beneath the apparent tranquil civility of the 1950 to explain how Russ and Bev became alienated by their own white community when their son has psychological problems resulting from being in the Korean War. After the disaster in their home, the community shunned them. When they were told that inadvertently they sold their home to a Black family, Russ staunchly refused to listen to the racist rationalizations from Karl (Cliff Chamberlain) a neighborhood organizer bent on keeping the neighborhood white. Act One exposes the white racism clouded by stability issues that shatter the peacefulness of the 1950’s. John Judd is terrific as the raging father while Kristen Fitzgerald is outstanding as the doting wife in total denial of her feelings as her world collapses. Act One deftly demonstrates the unaware latent racism of the white folks.
Act Two moves forward to 2009 in the same house though now in disarray that finds a group including a white couple raised in the suburbs who want to buy the house in Clybourne Park and raise it to build a new modern home on that site. They are questioned by an African-American couple born and raised in the now all-Black Clybourne Park. Each couple have their attorney’s present. Lena (Karen Aldridge) and her husband Kevin ( James Vincent Meredith) want to keep the integrity of the neighborhood through limiting the zoning and any drastic changes to the neighborhood. They want to resist the gentrification of Clybourne Park.
Much of act two is dominated by using uncomfortable humor as Steve (a fine turn by Cliff Chamberlain) gets into a quagmire as he tries to explain his position but Lena pressures him to face the issue of race that is obviously looming just beneath the surface at this meeting. The clumsy language by the well-meaning Steve exposes his own racial bias that he is totally unaware of yet it gets exposes by Lena’s constant chiding. Bruce Norris uses racial jokes to heighten the issue as the couples exchange several distasteful jokes that offend African-Americans and women among others. These exchanges dramatize the communication gap we still face about sensitive racial issues.
Norris deftly demonstrates how social attitudes and territorial preservation can become awkward issues to resolve. Norris sure exposes the latent racism of even well-meaning white folks. Since Clybourne Park force white folks to look in a mirror to contemplate their own hidden racial attitudes, the play can spark animated debate and fervent denial. Let the dialogue begin.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: September 17, 2011
At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N.Halsted, Chicago, IL, call 312-335-1650, www.steppenwolf.org, tickets $20 -$75, Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 pm, matinees at 3 pm on Wednesdays, Saturdays & Sundays, running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission, through November 6, 2011