Protecting the old neighborhood, but redefining the threat
Review: “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris, at Steppenwolf Theatre, through Nov. 6 *****
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Halfway into the second act of Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” political incorrectness explodes across the stage and the fragile form of civility collapses like a house of cards.
Churned by increasingly crude, hysterically funny jokes and fuming revelations of prejudice, that sudden blowup between a white couple and a black couple negotiating the disposition of some property marks the virtuosic high point of “Clybourne Park” at Steppenwolf Theatre. It’s a dazzling skein of theatrical ensemble work that even tops what the same actors achieve, along much the same lines but in radically different circumstances, in Act I.
“Clybourne Park” begins in 1959, in the fictitious white Chicago neighborhood imagined by playwright Lorraine Hansberry for her classic exploration of racial prejudice, “A Raisin in the Sun.” In Norris’ play, concerned – indeed, fearful — citizens are trying to talk a middle-aged homeowner into nullifying the sale of his house to a black couple. Act II leaps to 2009, when a young white couple have just bought the same house in a neighborhood that’s now all black, and a black couple intent on protecting a half-century of tradition are fighting plans to raze the home and build a larger one in its place.
Norris’ threads of prejudice, changing neighborhoods and the relative framework of absolute community values have been spun on the stage in other recent plays, like Joanna Glass’ “Palmer Park” and Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit.” But “Clybourne Park” has a keener edge. It speaks more concisely, its layered insights honed with a mordant wit. It holds up a mirror from which no observer can turn away. Anyone who has seen the musical “Avenue Q” will be reminded of its matter-of-fact assertion that “everyone’s a little bit racist.”
What actually starts the engine of “Clybourne Park” is the decision by empty-nesters Russ and Betsy to sell their home and move to the suburbs. In their new place, Russ will be just five minutes from his workplace, as he repeatedly points out. But that isn’t the real reason for their move, which is in fact more Russ’s choice than Betsy’s. Their son, a Korean War vet, came back emotionally scarred, couldn’t readjust and finally took his own life – in this house. There’s still more to it than that, as we discover turn by blazing turn.
When Russ’ neighbors learn that the new owners are black, a spokesman is sent to urge him to reconsider and to suggest ways to cancel the deal. As Karl, the mortified community’s emissary, Cliff Chamberlain offers a wheedling figure determined to make Russ understand what’s at stake if one black family is allowed to penetrate their white enclave. Karl even draws Russ’ black cleaning woman into the argument by trying to get her to agree that, for example, at the local grocery black people might not be able to find the kind of foods their accustomed to eating.
But Russ, reticent and obdurate in the person of John Judd, will hear none of it, not even when the pastor of their church (Brendan Marshall-Rashid) takes up the community’s cause. The more desperate the arguments grow, the funnier the situation becomes – until the exchange shifts suddenly to a new place, stark and fierce.
Fast-forward 50 years. Same cast of players, different collection of characters. Same house, but with a twist on the earlier confrontation. Steve and Lindsey (Chamberlain and Stephanie Childers), a young white couple, have bought the now dilapidated house and plan to replace it with a somewhat grander home. They’re meeting resistance from Lena and Kevin (Karen Aldridge and James Vincent Meredith), a young black couple who want to preserve the traditional look and feel of this neighbor they love, the place where they grew up.
Now of course it’s the age of the cell phone and attempts to reach understanding – even to raise issues — are sidetracked by calls that will “just take a minute.” There’s also a lot of legal stuff to get through and many a digression into banter that’s ordinary and friendly, at least at the start. But then an off-hand remark is taken wrong, or maybe not wrong at all. Maybe a hint of prejudice has leaked out. As the sniping escalates to slashing, tempers blow and the veneer of mutual respect disintegrates.
It’s hard to find common ground when the earth is heaving, and this is a tour de force for raging sextet, chaos imbued with musical precision by director Amy Morton. Having each actor play two characters separated by generations only underscores the irony in these cultural collisions. Kirsten Fitzgerald nicely embodies this bizarre inversion, appearing first as the frazzled, worried wife whose husband is about to drag her away from her neighborhood — and later inhabiting the calm persona of a lawyer who (almost) never loses her cool.
Yet “Clybourne Park” ends quietly, reflectively, back where it began. An epilogue reminds us that, however crazy or surreal or conflicted humanity’s big picture may be, it is a pointillist image, and our individual lives provide the dots — in all colors.
- Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. www.steppenwolf.org (312) 335-1650
- Interview with playwright Bruce Norris. Read it at Steppenwolf.
Photo caption and credit: Karen Aldridge (left) with Stephanie Childers and James Vincent Meredith in “Clybourne Park.” (Michael Brosilow)