It’s easy to see why Bruce Norris’s play Clybourne Park won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Our nation’s foremost honor for a playwright, the prize is presented for a play dealing with the particularities of American life, a quality that this particular play embodies and then some.
A razor-sharp comedy of race and manners, Clybourne Park‘s first act is set in a house in suburban Chicago in 1959, using as its jumping off point the premise of exploring what happened when the character of Karl Lindner, the representative from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association who visits the Younger family in the classic Lorraine Hansberry play A Raisin in the Sun, returns to his neighborhood after being unable to dissuade the Youngers from taking up residence in the white neighborhood he represents (thereby decreasing property values).
If the serious topic of white flight is the subject of the play, there’s a significant amount of comedy to be found in the piece as well. The white neighbors of the play are a particularly loopy bunch. The epitome of the fifties couple, Bev (Christina Kirk), whose evocatively emphatic hand gestures are worth the price of admission, and Russ (Frank Wood), the stoic, seething man of the house, find themselves set off into a frenzy when they’re visited by Karl (Jeremy Shamos) and the local pastor, Jim (Brendan Griffin).
Karl, who’s just returned from the Youngers’, reveals to Russ that the man who’s sold their house has chosen a black family as the buyers. Using Bev and Russ’s maid Francine (the comically stone-faced Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband Albert (Damon Gupta) as his sounding board, he attempts to convince them that blacks and whites have inherently different cultures to the point where living adjacent to one another seems an affront to civility. In fact, he makes a point of noting, there seems even to be some connection between race and the desire to ski — a difference that would inevitably cause a furor for the new neighbors upon their arrival if their children enroll in the local middle school, where yearly ski trips are de rigueur.
Stoic Russ holds his ground, insisting that these interlopers leave him alone and let him (and the house’s new owners) go on in peace. He’s not a particularly ardent defender against racism, but at the very least he’s a racial libertarian, and all this grandstanding in his living room has, by the end of the play’s first act, taken its toll on he and his wife, who are facing down the demons of their family’s own blighted past, in particular the suicide of their veteran son, who fought in Korea and struggled with certain damning accusations after his return home.
The play’s second act flips the first act’s premise on its head. Set fifty years later in 2009, we meet a group (played by the same actors in new roles) who are meeting in the dilapidated remnants of the same house. A white couple (Jeremy Shamos and Annie Parisse) are preparing to tear down the house and build a new, taller house for their family, but they’re being blocked by local black residents (Crystal A. Dickinson and Damon Gupta), who have gotten a petition approved to restrict the height of the new house because of the historical nature of the neighborhood. As the two sides duke it out, racist and sexist jokes enter the mix and create a dangerous cocktail of competing intentions.
If the play’s first act is more narratively propulsive, Norris’s work shines as a whole for its success in creating a funny, humane work that sends an audience into hysterics — and then the very next instant forces us to question why we’re laughing. This is the uncomfortable joy of the play, which is performed by a uniformly stellar cast (though Christina Kirk and Frank Wood are particular standouts in the play’s first act). A particularly affecting moment in the first act has Kirk’s Bev pining floridly for the day to come when blacks and whites can sit at the same table only to be met by the indifference of her maid’s husband, the object of this tangent.
Directed by Pam MacKinnon, with simple but effective sets by Daniel Ostling, there are no dull moments throughout. When the more distant past and the recent past collide as the play nears its conclusion, the decades-spanning intentions of Norris pay off, particularly in the play’s thrilling final moments. If it’s still an essentially white-centric view of race (notable is the fact that Norris gives the black couple its own rather strained chance to be antagonists in their own rite in a post-Whole Foods era), Clybourne Park is nevertheless the rare play that can provoke a spirited, topical debate on race without isolating any one group from the discussion.