BWW Reviews: CLYBOURNE PARK Probes Racism with Humor at Barrington Stage
Conflating racism, politics and everyday culture, Clybourne Park is one of the most entertaining yet troubling plays ever written for the American stage. The marvelous production that opened yesterday at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts began its life in August at the Dorset, Vermont Theatre Festival. The co-production combined the resources of the two top tier companies and retained the rising director Giovanna Sardelli to stage it. Under her sure hand, the production is riveting in its storytelling, and sometimes shocking in its depiction of racial sparring.
Clybourne Park deserves both its Pulitzer Prize for Drama (2011) and Tony Award as Best Play (2012) for the work of playwright Bruce Norris. He has done the seemingly impossible - capturing both the racial echoes of the past and present in two acts, the first taking place in 1959 and the second in 2009. In the beginning the house is being sold in a white neighborhood to a black family, and in the end it is being appropriated by a white family gentrifying a black neighborhood.
In a nutshell, Clybourne Park reminds us that America has a long way to go before it gets anywhere near its promised nirvana of racial reconciliation, if it ever does.
The genius of Norris is that he captured the precise, almost verbatem, arguments I heard in the late 50's as the village I lived in (Freeport, NY) saw the black community moving from its ghetto in Bennington Park to houses in other parts of the town. The hue and cry was more than hysterical, it was racist, hateful and full of fear. But, just as in Clybourne Park, once the debate reached beyond close friends and family, it was tamped down by disguising the outrage with politeness and peer pressure.
In this story, Russ and Bev (Remi Sandri and Carol Halstead) have just sold their house and neighbors drop by on various pretenses to register their disapproval, all disguised as being "helpful" of course, but the veneer of neighborliness is undercut by earlier actions where they censured and clucked their disapproval of the couple once their son, under a cloud, committed suicide.
The maid, Francine (Lynette R. Freeman) and her husband Albert (Andy Lucien) are - at first - peripheral to the conversation between the white folks but are soon drawn in, and in the second act they become the homeowners Lena and Kevin who often become invisible to the self-absorbed white people in the home. Clea Alsip is the pregnant woman in both acts, and as Betsy and Lindsey has perhaps the most comic role of all the actors. Kevin Crouch also has a field day with his three characters, Jim, Tom and Kenneth.
The lighter roles are needed to balance the fierce passions that roil just beneath the surface of the others. In the end, all the performers - having the benefit of a long run in Dorset and additional rehearsal time at Barrington Stage - were as finely honed as actors well into their run can be.
The magnificent set by Narelle Sissons could be viewed at leisure before the play began, and I coveted its detailing. With both the floor joists and attic visible, it soared with what appeared to be 16' ceilings, with arts and crafts style wood paneled luxury, and a staircase that would make anyone think of using it for a grand entrance. In the second act, much had changed. The custom window treatments were gone, replaced by K-Mart curtains, the fireplace mantle and surround was missing, and the lovely wood wall was bearing the scars of drywall and grafitti. The house was lived in, and the question arose as to whether it deserved historic preservation - or could be redesigned/replaced by a modern architectural statement. The rationales presented in the second half were different from those in the first, but the arguments being made fell on deaf ears.
Some pretty racial and sexual jokes get told in Clybourne Park, the sort that evoked nervous laughter rather than guffaws from the opening night audience, and they went further than any others I have ever heard on stage. For all of that, however, they enhance our understanding of the dynamics involved in shifting neighborhoods. The passions that change can arouse in "normal" people has always been on view as human beings try to come to grips with it.
There is a resolution to Clybourne Park, a subtle, gentle reminder that the passions we invest in houses and efforts to protect neighborhoods is like trying to stop the tides. People and communities always change. As the play reaches its final minutes, there is a moment of clarity, though it is perhaps one that only the audience can appreciate, not the people fighting onstage who are far too invested in real estate to see the bigger picrure.