Two memories popped into my head while watching Bruce Norris’ exhilarating Clybourne Park, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play making its Southern California debut at the Mark Taper Forum. The first was old, and personal—an aunt and uncle who moved out of their Chicago home in the 1960s because their neighborhood was “changing.” The “coloreds” were moving in, which to them was a terrifying thought, in part because the value of their property was sure to plummet.
The second was much more recent: Listening to the obvious race baiting being perpetuated by certain candidates in a recent presidential primary, and waiting in vain for the media to call them on it. The dog-whistle words were obvious enough—when Barak Obama is called the “food stamp president,” the subtext is clear to all—but with a few brave exceptions, journalists shied away from pointing out why these taunts were so effective. Race was a topic they just didn’t want to get into.
Forty years ago, my relatives used blunt, offensive words to describe the new neighbors they feared. Today, those fears and misunderstandings still exist, but that sort of language is not permitted, so the conversation occurs in code. This is progress?
In Clybourne Park, Norris makes a clear and convincing case that it is anything but. He wrings huge belly laughs out of our hypocritical attempts to deny the less-attractive sides of our nature, such as the fact that—as one frustrated character finally screams out–“Humans are territorial!” We’re also programmed, at a very young age, to divide up the world into people who are like us, and those we perceive as different and threatening. And that divide often coincides with race.
Lorraine Hansberry was unafraid to point that out. She wrote the classic American drama A Raisin in the Sun about a black family in Chicago that dares to move into a white neighborhood in search of a better life. (It was based loosely on her own experiences.)
Clybourne Park is basically an extended riff on that great play—which, thanks to some smart scheduling, can currently be seen at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Its setting is the home that Hansberry’s black family courageously purchases in the fictional Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park.
Act One takes place in 1959. We meet the white family that has sold the house and is moving to the suburbs. We learn about the tragic events that led to their decision, and meet the one character this play shares with Raisin: Karl Linden, the unctuous president of the Clybourne Park Homeowners Association. He has just tried to convince the black family to reconsider their decision, to no avail; now he’s trying to get the white family to take back their offer.
Act Two takes place in 2009. Clybourne Park, we learn, has been through some tough times, but it’s gentrifying, and a prosperous white couple, Steve and Lindsey, wants to buy the house, tear it down and build a McMansion. Their plans are opposed by—what else?—the local homeowners association, which is now represented by a black Yuppie couple, Kevin and Lena. All agree to sit down and hash out their differences.
Like the good, fair-minded, liberal people they are, everyone gets along splendidly…for a while. But things gradually heat up, and the same arguments we heard in 1959 get rehashed in slightly different form. Why are outsiders invading our neighborhood? What does this mean for our property values?
The language is less direct, but the characters’ needs and desires are the same as those of their predecessors. It’s just that, racially, the shoe is now on the other foot.
This is provocative stuff, to put it mildly, and Norris isn’t afraid to use offensive language and outrageous humor to keep things lively. The echoes between the two eras—some obvious, others much more subtle—provoke both laughs and tears. He gets the details right (the white couple in 2009 is installing a koi pond in the back yard), which keeps the satire razor sharp.
Under the direction of Pam MacKinnon, the very strong cast (which is taking this play to Broadway in the spring) makes every plot twist seem not only believable, but intensely important. The standout is Jeremy Shamos, who is equally compelling as the repugnant Karl (in 1959) and the exasperated Steve (in 2009), who inadvertently manages to offend literally everyone else on stage through a series of hilarious verbal missteps.
All in all, Clybourne Park is a thrilling night of theater. Skip the next presidential debate and see it.
Clybourne Park is performed daily except Monday through Feb. 26 at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles. Tickets are $20 to $70. Information: (213) 628-2772, or centertheatregroup.org.