‘Clybourne Park’: Race and the cost of dreams

Clybourne Park is a fictional place where dreams were not deferred and the American dream was realized through nightmarish conditions. Lorraine Hansberry used this fictional place as the name of the white neighborhood where the black family of her “A Raisin in the Sun” were moving into despite obviously hostile white neighbors. In Bruce Norris’ eponymous play, we meet the white family selling their home in 1959 and revisit the new buyers in 2009, each time revisiting issues of race.

The Playwrights Horizons Production of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play is currently at the Mark Taper Forum., raising uncomfortable questions even as the audience laughs and groans at obvious faux pas and racial conceits of the past. Yet Norris also points out how we are totally comfortable in talking about race in 2009.

If you’re not familiar with Hansberry’s original play, the Youngers are receiving a sudden financial boon. The father has died and his life insurance policy will give the family $10,000. The mother wants to fulfill the dream she shared with her husband–a home in a nice neighborhood. She puts a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood. A Mr. Lindner comes from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association offers the Youngers money not to move in, but they refuse this deal. Things are further complicated when the eldest son, Walters, steals most of the money to put a down payment on a liquor store with his friend, but his friend takes the cash and runs.

Lorraine Hansberry was witness to a similar incident. Her father was involved in a famous case, Hansberry v. Lee in 1940 regarding racially restrictive covenants preventing African Americans from purchasing land in a Chicago neighborhood.

The actual neighborhood was in Washington Park (6140 S. Rhodes) and the home was bought in 1937. Hansberry wrote in her book “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” that the battle went on for 25 years and included being cursed, beaten and threatened. The battle was both legal and personal.

Neither play touches on that chapter. “Clybourne Park” is about a series of unwelcome neighbors.

In real life, Olive Ida Burke (who had in 1934 brought an action to enforce the racial restriction) and her husband James were the owners who sold the home to Hansberry’s father; they are replaced by Bev (Christina Kirk) and her husband Russ (Frank Wood).

The nice cozy living room has packed and half-packed cardboard boxes. Russ is sitting in a chair eating ice cream. The refrigerator has to be cleaned out, after all. Bev is dressed in a blue plaid dress and heels. She’s trying to be upbeat, but her voice is strained and she is unsure about how to speak with her husband. Her maid, Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson), tolerates Bev, although Bev seems to believe they had a friendship of some depth. The pastor (Brendan Griffin) stops by, but he’s unwelcome by Russ. Bev and Russ has a son who was unwelcome in the neighborhood when he returned from the Korean War.

Also unwelcome is Karl Lindner (Jeremy Shamos) who has a deaf, pregnant wife (Annie Parisse). That makes him somewhat sympathetic, but he’s the same person who has just visited the Youngers as a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. Karl wants to be sure Russ is aware that he’s selling to a black family.

Russ hardly cares. It becomes clear that for Russ and Bev, they leave behind no friends.

In Act II, we leap past the Youngers time in the house. Almost half a century has passed and the neighborhood has become predominately black. Karl and his family quickly moved out as did other white couples–we know this because the white female lawyer of the new buyers–a white couple, is the daughter of Karl and Betsy. The new couple, Lindsey (Annie Parisse) and her husband Steve (Jeremy Shamos), want to rebuild, tearing down this house to make one 15 feet higher than the current neighborhood association approves.

Playing on Hansberry’s play, Norris’ piece riffs on race relations then and now. Being politically correct isn’t easy–maybe what was the correct thing to do  was clearer in the 1950s–but only for the people living now. In our own times like 2009, navigating racial tensions and other land mines such as jokes, heritage and gentrification can accidentally result in small explosions and neighborhood squirmishes.

We’ve come a long way since Hansberry fought for his legal rights in court, but the dialogue of race between races remains a touchy issue that still needs to be discussed.

“Clybourne Park” continues at the Mark Taper Forum until 26 February 2012.

In conjunction with the presentation of “Clybourne Park” at the Taper, CTG is presenting  the critically-acclaimed Ebony Repertory Theatre production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” directed by Phylicia Rashad, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, January 19 through February 19, 2012.

Playwrights Horizons, Inc., New York City, produced the world premiere of “Clybourne Park” off-Broadway in 2010.

Tickets and information are available at CenterTheatreGroup.org, the Center Theatre Group box office located at the Ahmanson Theatre, or by calling (213) 628-2772.


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