Studio Players may be the area’s most consistent, go-to theater for light-hearted comedic romps, but that doesn’t mean the theater shies away from meatier material with contemporary relevance.
Take this weekend’s opening of Clybourne Park. The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play by Bruce Norris tackles one of our nation’s most challenging and complex cultural divides — race and class relations in America.
The play is a spin-off of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 game-changer, A Raisin in the Sun, a kitchen-sink drama that details one black family’s attempt to improve their lives, in part by purchasing an affordable home, which happens to be in an all-white neighborhood. The play marked the first time a play written by a black woman was produced on Broadway. The New York Times declared the play had “changed American theater forever.”
More than 50 years later, the nation is still embroiled in racial and class tensions. That’s one reason director Patrick Mitchell pitched directing Clybourne Park to Studio Players this year.
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“I’m hoping it’s going to raise folks’ awareness,” says Mitchell, an actor and co-founder of Message Theatre, a Lexington-based theater group that features plays by black playwrights, all brought to life with black actors, directors and designers.
The play’s two acts are set 50 years apart but are both set in the same location — the house purchased in the all-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park by the Younger family that is alluded to but not shown in A Raisin in the Sun.
Karl Lindner, the white neighbor who tries to bribe the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun to prevent them from moving into his neighborhood, appears again in Clybourne Park, this time attempting to persuade the white family selling the home to the Youngers to back out of the deal.
“He’s very passionate about it,” says Mitchell. “But the family selling the house is going through something of its own.”
That something includes the suicide of their son, a Korean war vet who hanged himself in the house. For them, the house holds painful memories and they just want to leave.
Fast-forward 50 years and Clybourne Park is now a black neighborhood facing gentrification. When a white couple wants to demolish the same house at Clybourne Park in order to build a larger, fancier one, neighbors are worried about their property values plummeting, not to mention the impending erosion of the neighborhood’s cultural identity.
Mitchell knows a bit about gentrification. He lived in the Bushwick area of New York for 20 years before returning to Lexington.
“Coffee shops have popped up in the area,” says Mitchell, who adds that the modest home he lived in is now worth over $2 million.
“The neighborhood has completely changed,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell hopes the play will open a dialogue among diverse audiences, but acknowledges that those conversations can feel awkward.
“There’s a lot of people who have thoughts about race but are afraid to say it,” Mitchell said. “People just need information. Sometimes they just need to sit and talk.”
Humor is one of the ways Norris addresses the awkwardness that many folks feel when talking about race.
Mitchell describes a scene in which characters are trading jokes, some of which hinge on race and gender for their laughs, as an important moment in the play.
“They’re not funny jokes but they’re trying to make a point,” Mitchell said. “It’s not a comic moment, but you find laughter through your nervousness.”
“I hope this will spark a lot of really good conversation,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s what the playwright wanted.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If You Go
What: Studio Players’ production of Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play.
When: 8 p.m. March 10-12, 18, 19, 25, 26; 2 p.m. March 13, 20, 27.
Where: Carriage House Theatre, 154 W. Bell Court.
Tickets: $21 public, $11 students