Monday, April 23, 2012

Clybourne Park and Race in America

The cast of Clybourne Park (All photos by Joan Marcus)

Bruce Norris’s brilliant Clybourne Park – which just opened on Broadway in the first-rate production, directed by Pam McKinnon, that originated at Playwrights Horizon two years ago – begins as what seems like a satirical take on 1950s America. Daniel Ostling’s set reproduces a staid mid-century interior design; the locale, which the title identifies, is a middle-class neighborhood in central Chicago in 1959. But the backdrop beyond the front door, which we can glimpse through a stage-right window, has a touch of artificiality about it, and it feels as if there’s a film of gray over everything. The inhabitants, Bev (Christina Kirk) and Russ (Frank Wood), are moving out, so the living room is crowded with piled-up boxes and rolled-up rugs, but the sense you get of remoteness, transience, alienation go deeper. (Allen Lee Hughes did the lighting.) The opening conversation between these middle-aged people is mostly a meaningless disagreement about capital cities. Bev has a smiley-face quality, like that of a camp counselor committed to teaching a group of eight-year-olds the rules to a new game. She has a bit of a baby-talk sound, and a habit of buckling at the knees and rolling her eyes when she wants to make a point, and she waves her hands around to underscore her words, so we seem to be getting the Classics Illustrated version of everything she says. She’s set on getting her husband moving: he’s still in his PJs, and she wants him to get a footlocker out of one of the upstairs rooms but he keeps putting her off. Russ, who is reading a National Geographic in his easy chair, is agreeable enough, but as playful as his tone is, his replies sound like evasion tactics. When the local minister, Jim (Brendan Griffin), enters with a football in his hands – and golden-haired Griffin looks like a college football star – the number of motivators on the stage doubles. He chatters to the couple in wobbly clich├ęs, his tone relentlessly upbeat. Then there’s the African American maid, Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson), whose husband, Albert (Damon Gupton), has arrived to pick her up. These two are like savvy domestics on an antiquated TV sitcom.

Nothing in Bev or Russ’s demeanor suggests they are people who have been through a tragedy except perhaps (if we’re looking for clues) Russ’s determined immobility. But Jim, who came by because of Bev’s concern over her husband, brings up the verboten subject of their dead Korean War-vet son, and Russ shuts him up by telling him to go fuck himself. Griffin’s Jim blinks and stares into space, disoriented, as if he’d suddenly found himself in the wrong play, and we wonder, too, as what we’ve been watching jogs for an instant into the kind of modern family drama where characters don’t feel the need to mind their language. Albert, who’s been standing around on the periphery of the action waiting for his wife, ducks out in embarrassment. We think we’ve been pulled back on course when another neighbor, Karl (Jeremy Shamos), shows up with a pregnant wife, Betsy (Annie Parisse), and a terrible sidewall haircut that makes him look as if he’d stepped out of a comic strip of the period. But Betsy’s deafness sets off her sweetness and cuteness so that they seem manufactured, and you register that you’d never find a hearing-impaired character rippling the perfect surface of a fifties TV show.

Christina Kirk and Frank Wood
The first act of Clybourne Park has a double agenda. The first is to play the disturbing reality of Russ and Bev’s son Kenneth’s death – he was a decorated soldier who, it turned out, massacred women and children in a Korean village, and later hanged himself in his bedroom – against the repressed, conservative, cheery setting of middle-Western middle-class America, which doesn’t know how to respond to it and so detours around it. The juxtaposition suggests David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones, which turns Ozzie and Harriet’s son David into a traumatized Vietnam vet. But though Norris may have been thinking about Sticks and Bones he’s far slyer and less obvious than Rabe, whose play takes a sledgehammer approach. For one thing, like Russ’s assaulting a pastor with a four-letter word, the crime to which Kenneth confessed feels dislocated in time; it’s the kind of revelation we associate with Vietnam (and more recently, of course, through the Robert Bales case, with Afghanistan) – the patriotic press of the Korean War era wouldn’t have been likely to root it out.

The other agenda has to do with race, which is the real subject of Clybourne Park. Karl is a refugee from another play, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, in which he’s the only white character, the representative from the community organization who tries unsuccessfully to talk the black family, the Youngers, out of moving into what has up to now been a lily-white neighborhood. Norris’s dramatic conceit is that the house the Youngers have bought is Russ and Bev’s, sold by a real estate agent to whom they gave free rein, and Karl, up in arms, marches over to see them immediately after the Youngers have turned down his offer to buy the house back. Karl’s embattled, dog-with-a-bone personality is countered by Jim’s calmer, mediating one: he wants to come across as the voice of reason. But they engage in a kind of tag-team racism that plasters over the community’s fear of being overrun by people of color (the tumbling-property-values argument, which Karl presents, is only the tip of the psychological iceberg) with increasingly, hilariously absurd claims about the natural incompatibility of the races, which don’t eat the same food or enjoy the same pastimes. Poor Francine and Albert, who are stuck awkwardly in the middle of this discussion because Albert has volunteered to haul down the trunk for Bev, become the unwilling focus for the two white men’s object lesson. Francine is obliged to answer awful questions that call for the utmost diplomacy (would she want to move into a neighborhood like this one? would she find the foods her family prefers at their local grocery store?). On the other side of the argument is Bev, with her terror of unpleasantness and what she believes in her heart is a liberal attitude. Karl thinks the neighborhood is progressive because they’ve grown used to having a grocery run by Jews. Bev is appalled by his and Jim’s exclusiveness, but she’s even more self-deluded: she thinks that she and Francine are friends and that race relations could be solved if only we were willing to try eating each other’s foods. And she doesn’t understand how condescending she’s being when she tries repeatedly to press a chafing dish she no longer wants on Francine and Albert. When her obstinacy finally pushes Albert to the point of telling her decisively that they have their own things and don’t want hers, her feelings are hurt. (Dickinson is particularly impressive in this act. She gets almost a Brechtian gestus going: she seems to be simultaneously in the period and in the present, commenting silently on the scenario her character is pinned in.)

Norris links these two narratives ingeniously. At the climax of the act, Russ tells Karl and Jim in no uncertain terms that he couldn’t care less what happens to Clybourne Park. He blames his son’s suicide on the insensitivity of the community (after the story came out, no one would give him a job) and he feels that under the polite neighborly banter he and Bev have been treated as pariahs. His fury is the fire that burns through the first act.

Damon Gupton and Crystal A. Dickinson
Norris’s true theatrical coup, though, is what he does with act two. Fifty years have passed and we’re back in the same house, but the walls are covered with graffiti and one of the doors is broken off. Since the Youngers moved in the neighborhood has changed and changed again, first turning entirely black and working-class and then becoming gentrified. (Gelman’s grocery, we learn, was taken over by a Super Saver and more recently by a Whole Foods: this is one of Norris’s wittiest peripheral details.) Now it’s trendy. The same seven actors reappear but in different roles. The new owners of the house are Steve (Shamos) and Lindsey (Parisse) – like their first-act counterparts, they’re married and she’s pregnant – who have hired a construction engineer, Dan (Wood), to demolish it so they can rebuild it to their taste. But the current neighborhood organization has circulated a petition putting forth certain demands so that the new version of the house doesn’t violate their image of the community. The organization’s representatives are a black couple, Kevin (Gupton) and Lena (Dickinson), who has an emotional interest in preserving the historical value of the house because it was her great-aunt, Lena Younger, who bought it half a century ago. The other two characters, naturally, are lawyers: for Steve and Lindsey, Kathy (Kirk); for the community group, Tom (Griffin). (Kathy, we learn later, is Karl and Betsy’s daughter, though of course this isn’t the area she grew up in: white flight had taken her parents away to a more congenial setting by the time her mother gave birth to her. The baby Betsy’s carrying in act one is her older sister.) And before the conversation becomes heated and the play finds its inevitable way back to the issue of race – which is initially as tamped-down as the Kenneth tragedy was in the first fifteen minutes of act one – the characters replicate, more or less, Russ and Bev’s chatter about exotic places. The difference is that these people are all sufficiently well-to-do to have traveled to these destinations. In act one Karl, with uproarious short-sightedness, observed that “there is just something about the pastime of skiing that doesn’t appeal to the Negro community,” but by 2009 African Americans like Kevin and Lena take skiing vacations in Zurich and exchange impressions of Prague with their new white neighbors. The other difference is that manners have altered dramatically. It’s still acceptable to stereotype as long as you do it in a self-deprecating way, so Lindsey can make jokes about her Irish Catholic family and Kathy about her half-Jewish, half-Italian husband. And certain kinds of language boundaries have been all but erased. In act one, when Russ uses the word “fuck,” Jim points out with strained good nature that he’s just been told to mind his own business in terms more appropriate for the locker room. In 2009 profanity has become a common calling card for hip young professionals with stock portfolios. Clybourne Park has shifted from a satire of fifties sitcoms and Freudian family melodramas – Kenneth’s footlocker makes an obtrusive comic entrance when Albert inadvertently sends it clattering down the stairs, heavy with symbolic baggage – to satirical high comedy.

The veneer of liberal open-heartedness is scalded off when Lena finally makes the speech about her concerns that she’s been waiting patiently to interject while first Lindsey and then Tom are interrupted by their cell phones, and Steve walks off with Dan to investigate some obstruction he’s hit while attempting to uproot the crepe myrtle in the back yard. Lena’s tone of upbeat insistence suggests that she’s used to making motivational speeches in her community. But it switches to knowing condescension when she points out that “this is a highly desirable area . . . And now the area is changing . . . And . . . there are certain economic interests that are being served by those changes and others that are not.” That’s when the negotiations begin to go irrevocably sour. Steve demands that Lena admit that what she’s really talking about is race, though – in spite of the fact that he, like his counterpart in act one, is the character least prone to self-censorship – in the politically correct culture of the twenty-first century he can barely stutter out the word. Lena’s political high-handedness infuriates him, however, and once he gets started he goes too far, indignantly painting himself as an underdog in a land where a black man is in the White House. His behavior so embarrasses his wife – she takes up the well-meaning liberal banner Bev waved in act one – that she blurts out, preposterously, that half her friends are black. This wild-card sequence gets crazier and crazier as first Steve and then Lena tell racist jokes (though Steve claims that his joke can’t be racist because it was related to him by an African American) with unexpected collateral damage: Lindsey finds Lena’s sexist and Tom, who’s gay, thinks Steve’s is homophobic. Norris is such a superb dramatist that he can take this scene as far as he does without ever losing his footing; his satirical grasp seems to broaden as he goes farther over the edge.

Annie Parisse and Jeremy Shamos
In Buried Child, Sam Shepard’s Gothic take on the American family play, the garden behind the family house yields a harvest that it’s like something out of a fifties sci-fi movie. One of the sons keeps hauling in vegetables until, at the end, he stalks into the house with a dead baby in his mud-soaked arms. We’re meant to understand that the earth has vomited up these crops because it can no longer keep the appalling secret of the buried child. Norris takes the idea of the past that haunts the present – a convention Arthur Miller and others borrowed from the nineteenth-century well-made play – in another direction. At the end of act one Russ buries Kenneth’s footlocker under the crepe myrtle; in act two Dan (played by the same actor) digs it up and drags it back onstage. After everyone else, still steaming after the racial confrontation, clears out, Dan sits down – just where Russ sat at the beginning of act one – and reads Kenneth’s suicide letter to his parents while Kenneth himself (Griffin) walks slowly down the stairs like a ghost. The play comes full circle and then some, to the moments before the suicide that scarred his family. The tonal shift is masterly, and the play expands once more beyond even the subject of race to a more devastating portrait of a society that keeps trying to bury its sicknesses.

McKinnon has staged the play expertly; the first-act argument looks like a comic strip at one point, with static, squared-off figures in spaces so discrete they might be separate frames. And her work with the actors is superb. Ilona Somogyi has designed enormously clever costumes that provide pinprick commentaries on the characters. Clybourne Park has had a roundabout trip to Broadway: after its critically acclaimed off-Broadway run it won the Pulitzer Prize and then opened at the Royal Court in London, in a production that garnered several Olivier Awards. This may be one of the rare occasions when a play opens on Broadway after it has already been seen in several regional theatres. It’s worth noting that the Toronto production that closes at the end of the week, directed by my friend Joel Greenberg for Studio 180 at Canadian Stage, is in the same class as the production in New York. In one respect it’s even better: Michael Healey is a more powerful Russ than Frank Wood, the only member of the New York ensemble about whose performance I had reservations. (Healey’s also funnier as Dan in the second act.)

Norris’s point about race in America is that it’s a subject that never goes away. Clybourne Park is an Obama-era play not because of the explicit allusion to him but because the fact of Obama makes the subject more than ever inescapable. Clybourne Park is the best new American play within recent memory.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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