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At the end of Lorraine Hansberry’s Pulitzer prize-winning drama about a black family in Chicago, A Raisin in the Sun (1959), the lone white character appears. He’s Karl Linder and he visits a black family in order to convince them not to move into the house Mama Younger has put a down payment on in Clybourne Park, a white section of the city. He offers them a significant amount of money to keep his community segregated. However, Walter Lee Younger–who has lost two-thirds of the money from his late father’s life insurance legacy by foolishly trusting one of his pals–stands up to Linder, declines the offer, and restores his dignity within the family. A crucial line in the play is Walter’s remark, “That money is made out of my father’s flesh.”
You need not be familiar with Hansberry’s play in order to understand or appreciate Bruce Norris’s explosive, stand-alone drama, Clybourne Park, currently running in a brilliant production at the Woolly Mammoth theatre in Washington, D.C. (concurrent with a production that opened earlier in New York City and is still running). Hopefully, the play will be produced in many other theatres in the United States. Even without seeing the New York production, I can tell you that Howard Shalwitz’s dazzling staging at the Woolly Mammoth will be almost impossible to improve upon.
I mentioned the lone white character in A Raisin in the Sun because Clybourne Park is almost the opposite: a cast of eight characters, only two of whom are black. The play begins in September of 1959 with Russ and Bev, who are completing the packing for their move away from Clybourne Park. Boxes are all over the place, rugs are rolled up. Their dialogue about cities around the world is fairly vacuous. The only clue that something is amiss is that though it’s three o’clock in the afternoon, Russ is still partly dressed in his pajamas.
Francine, the black woman who has worked for Bev and Russ for many years, comes on stage a number of times, quietly assisting in the final steps of the packing process. But then, shortly, Bev’s minister appears, as does Karl Linder, dragging along his pregnant wife. Karl reveals something to Russ and Bev that they didn’t know: the couple that has purchased their home is black. Two hours earlier, Karl had visited them and tried to buy them off, in order to preserve “the needs of the people who live in [our] community.” What he gets from Russ in return is a total lack of concern and not much later we understand why. Russ and Bev’s son committed suicide in the house two years earlier after returning home traumatized from the Korean War and being ostracized by the community. Russ can’t wait to move away from Clybourne Park; he certainly doesn’t give a damn who occupies the house after he leaves the community that he feels has ruined his family.
Photo: Stan Barouh.
Norris’s gift is to take this fairly basic situation—a father’s grieving for his son’s death—and turn it into a powerful commentary on the falseness of community values, racism simmering just below the surface, and economic decisions that trump any potential for human decency. The tone of much of Act One, however, is carefree bantering, as Francine and her husband, Albert, are drawn into the often-contentious disputes among Russ and Bev, Jim (the minister), and Karl and his wife, Betsy. By the end of the act, just about every cliché about race has been spoken and the utter sham of homogenous communities has been exposed. Reflecting on the first half of Norris’ play, it’s easy to understand why the Civil Rights movement was about to explode during the next decade of American history.
Act Two reverses almost everything established in Act One except to underline the fact that race is still one of the most befuddling and unresolved issues in American culture. It’s fifty years later, September of 2009. This time it’s white Yuppies who are planning to move into the house in Clybourne Park as the area of Chicago begins to undergo gentrification, meaning rapidly increasing property prices, demolition and mansionization—this time to the consternation of the black community who see their heritage slowly being swept away. The same members of the cast play completely different roles, but the ratio remains six whites and two blacks. Except that the two black characters are as highly educated and affluent as their white counterparts (they all speak of their recent trips to Europe), and Lena (who was Francine in the first act) is now the one who bemoans the encroachment of—this time white–invaders: “It happens one house at a time.”
And since the years between 1959 and 2009 have strengthened capitalism’s choke on every aspect of American life, there’s much more about money in this act than in the earlier one. Lena’s husband works for Capital Equities. Steve and Lindsey, who are moving into the dilapidated property, are willing to spend a fortune renovating it. They’ve got an architect and a broker with them. A good bit of time is spent haggling about the zoning laws because the Clybourne Owners Association has final control over changes to the structure once inhabited by Lena’s aunt, Mamma Younger.
If the first half of the play is about Ross’s pain at the loss of his son, culminating in a brawl with his wife’s minister and the head of the neighborhood association Karl Linder, the second half concludes with a verbal orgy of racial stereotyping (one crude racial joke after another), suggesting, sadly, that little understanding between blacks and whites in the United States has taken place during the last half century. There’s plenty of vicious humor here reminiscent of the second half of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where the game is “get the guest.” Nor can I help saying that in both halves of Norris’s truth-or-consequences free-for-all, the white characters are little credit to their race while Francine and Albert, who morph into Lena and Kevin in the second part, are decent, rational people who are much more in control of their feelings than are the invading Yuppies.
James Kronzer’s wrap-around-set is extraordinary, especially the way it, too, changes from the first act to the second. Though every actor in the Woolly Mammoth’s exhilarating production is superb, Cody Nickell–as the twit Karl in the first half and boob Steve in the second–stands out among the men; and Dawn Ursula, as Francine, subsequently altered into Lena, is a joy to watch and listen to every time she moves or opens her mouth. Michell Hébert, as Russ at the beginning and then as Dan the handyman in part two, has the most poignant moments in the play. And finally, an eighth character—whose identity I cannot mention—ties everything together in a startling ending to this riveting play, ensemble acting at its best.
You may laugh your head off for the two hours of Clybourne Park, but later that evening you’ll begin to get disturbed as you recognize how superbly Bruce Norris has brought to the stage Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent observation that when it comes to discussions of race, we are still a “nation of cowards.”
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Through April 11th.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.