As this election year embroils the nation in tumultuous cultural and political conflict, there is one thing we could all do in the name of civility: go to the theater.
Not to escape — not this time — but to meet our conflicts head on.
That’s the thought that kept running through my mind as I watched a matinee performance of Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris at Studio Players.
I cannot think of a play I have seen in the past 10 years that is as urgently relevant as Norris’ Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play about race relations in America.
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A spinoff of Lorraine Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun, the play takes place in the Chicago suburban home that Hansbury’s Younger family is set to move into, becoming the first black family in the Clybourne Park neighborhood. Clybourne Park opens just a few hours after the scene in Raisin in which Karl Lindner, a white man who fears the Youngers’ presence will drive down property values, attempts to persuade the Youngers not to move, even offering to buy the house. Lindner shows up at the Clybourne home, where husband and wife Russ and Bev are packing up to move. They don’t want to live in the home that their son, a Korean War vet, committed suicide in just two years earlier. And they don’t care that the folks buying their home are black.
The first act, set in 1959, chronicles the beginning of the change in the neighborhood. Fast-forward half a century to act two, when Clybourne Park is a firmly established black neighborhood facing a steady onslaught of gentrification. When a white family wants to buy and demolish the same Clybourne Park owned by the Youngers and rebuild it even bigger, black leaders in the neighborhood contest the structure, bringing up awkward — and in many cases, awkwardly humorous — conversations about race.
Despite Norris’ plot details, the play isn’t so much about gentrification in the literal sense as it is about what happens when you get black and white people together to confront the elephant in the room. Some try — and some don’t — to bridge the cultural and racial divides they encounter in their everyday lives. But all of them fail to varying degrees.
Message Theatre co-founder Patrick Mitchell directs a spirited cast of seven who pull double duty portraying entirely different characters in the show’s second act. Mitchell’s strength lies in conveying the power of the unspoken.
Take the blocking in the first act, for instance. Domestic worker Francine (Meredith Frankie Crutcher) is always in the background as Bev (Diane Carter), her white employer, fusses around, packing boxes. Bev consistently treats Francine as if she is physically invisible, talking around or over her as if Francine is part of the furniture. What’s more disturbing than Francine’s invisibility is that it is so totally normal and expected. Crutcher carries a silent air of repulsed acceptance of the situation and practiced, detached restraint. When Bev tries to give Francine a fancy silver serving dish as if it is a morally superior gesture of kindness, the phrase “mighty white of ya” comes to mind.
But Bev is not all bad. She’s a grieving mom, and generally the nicest white character in act one. When she breaks down crying at the racially charged conflict that Karl Lindner (Jimmy James Hamblin) brings into her home, she tearfully wishes blacks and whites could all just “sit at the same table,” and yet she doesn’t even know that Francine, a “friend” who has served her for years, has three children. That is the problem.
The play is full of such moments that expose characters’ innately blind hypocrisy. They all mean well, yet they are all varying shades of terrible. And among that messy imperfection, Norris seems to be saying, we must lurch awkwardly forward together.
Despite the sober, complicated subject matter, the show is liberally peppered with silliness and humor that both escalates the conflicts and provides relief from them alternately, and sometimes concurrently. Hamblin’s portrayal of Lindner is mercifully hilarious, and yet there is something insidious beneath that comical veneer. McGuire’s second-act character, Kevin, skillfully ups the ante on humor, exchanging jokes with Hamblin’s Steve, before those jokes explode into inevitable conflict.
Overall, Mitchell’s cast takes the audience on a darkly entertaining but fraught journey into one of our nation’s most enduring, entrenched problems. Clybourne Park doesn’t have the answers, but it does hold up a mirror to ourselves and forces us to look hard at it.
You might be surprised by some of the things you see.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
What: Studio Players’ production of Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play.
When: 8 p.m. March 18, 19, 25, 26; 2 p.m. March 20, 27.
Where: Carriage House Theatre, 154 W. Bell Court.
Tickets: $21 public, $11 students