In conjunction with A Raisin In the Sun in rolling repertory, PlayMakers Repertory Company is presenting Clybourne Park, a dark comedy by Bruce Norris, which takes off literally immediately after Raisin ends. The presentation, which opened Saturday to a full house, examines the effects of prejudice in Suburbia over a span of half a century.
The play’s director, Tracy Young, has assembled an ensemble cast of seven that works intimately and smoothly to recreate the sale of a home in Clybourne Park, once in 1959 and once in 2009. In Act I we see Russ and Bev, an upper-middle-class family, packing up to move after having sold their house. Russ (Jay O’Berski) and Bev (Constance Macy) have sold the house to the Younger family of Raisin, at a reduced rate, because of an unfortunate event that has happened in the home. The couple’s son, Kenneth, who two years before had returned from the war in Korea, has committed suicide in his bedroom. He was found by Francine (Rasool Jahan), the couple’s maid, who is helping them pack. In a fast-paced and shockingly funny scene, a series of visitors to the house reveals a community-wide prejudice – the arrival of a black family in Clybourne Park, Chicago would result in “white flight” and cause property values to drop along with the quality of life.
First to arrive is Jim (Josh Tobin), the local minister, who attempts to console Russ about Kenneth and is failing miserably. On his heels is Karl (Matt Garner), the local realtor, who has his pregnant wife in tow, and has just left the Younger household in a failed attempt to abort the purchase of the house. Karl’s wife, Betsy (Kelsey Didion), is deaf, and much is made comically of the fact because she is missing so much of what is happening. Albert (Nilan Johnson), Francine’s husband, has arrived to take her home and is enlisted to bring down a trunk full of Kenneth’s things; like most everything else in this scene the attempt fails miserably. By the time the town clock chimes four, Russ has routed most everyone from the house and the scene closes on a poignant note.
In Act II, fifty years have passed. The house has suffered the effects of time and ill-use. The chandelier is gone; the banister that hugged the stairs has been replaced by an iron bar. The wall itself is pocked and torn, and the yard outside is brown and littered. The huge crepe myrtle that dominated the back yard is dead and must be dug up. Into this mess comes a team of people who are attempting to accommodate the sale of the house to Steve and Lindsey (Garner and Didion), who intend to tear it down to build a bigger house in its place. Because the area has been classified a historic district, there are restrictions on what can be built there. There to iron out what can be done are lawyers Kathy and Tom (Macy and Tobin) and the sellers of the house, Lena and Kevin (Jahan and Johnson). A laborer who is working out back (O’Berski) unearths a trunk buried under the now-dead tree and deposits it and its contents directly into the center of what has become a free-for-all. The future of the home, and, as a result, the Clybourne Park area as a whole, is in question.
The work takes place on a fully two-story complex that is a marvel of design by Robin Vest. The upstage two-story structure must be rotated out to reveal the timeworn structure in Act II, and the design of the house is wrapped around the thrust set in such a way as to place the audience nearly inside its walls. That this mammoth structure must be razed and alternated with another set for Raisin is a marvel.
Playwright Norris constructs this play using a parallel structure that underlines the continuing prejudice and racism that is the elephant in the room. Both sales are sadly lacking in concern, either for the house itself or the families that have inhabited it. There is racism rampant in the exchanges that take place, most notably the section in which the dialog degenerates into racially slurred jokes. Norris brings the show full circle, as we return briefly to the fifties and a meeting with Kenneth and his mom, Bev. He is “writing a letter,” while fully dressed out in his uniform, a telltale sign of what he is about to do.
Norris is a true comic wit, using it to temper the riotous racism that he presents onstage. The two acts present a stripped-down and radical hypocrisy which demonstrates how far, or perhaps how little, we have progressed in the last half-century. With a smart and snappy seven-member ensemble, PlayMakers brings us a modern counterpoint to the Younger family in Raisin. The two together are a wake-up call, which should bring up an awakening in the neighborhood. When addressing the continuing problem of race in America, look first to your own house.
Clybourne Park continues through March 3. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.