BWW Review: Circle Players' Provocative and Compelling CLYBOURNE PARK
Daniel DeVault's taut, focused direction and consistent performances from his ensemble of actors are the hallmarks of Circle Players' latest show in their 2016-17 season - Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Clybourne Park - now onstage, appropriately and significantly at the Z. Alexander Looby Theatre, named for one of Nashville's most venerated civil rights leaders through April 2.
Inspired by Lorainne Hansberry's timeless and iconic A Raisin in the Sun (which will open at TPAC's AnDrew Johnson theater next weekend in a new Nashville Rep mounting that stars Eddie George, Tamiko Robinson Steele and First Night Honoree Jackie Welch), only time will tell if Norris' work will withstand the vagaries of time and theatrical ebb and flow to attain the same vaunted status of the source material. Hansberry's play, which was born out of her family's own momentous legal battle to buy a house in a white Chicago neighborhood, has flourished over the years with several Broadway revivals, major regional Theater Productions and film and television treatments. In its day, it gained instant historical status because it was the first play by an African-American woman every produced on the main stem, directed by the first African-American director (the legendary Lloyd Richards) in his Broadway debut.
Deriving its name from a poem by Langston Hughes (known both as "A Dream Deferred" and "Harlem"), Hansberry's play tells the story of an African-American family's experiences in moving into a previously all-white enclave in Chicago, due to a life insurance payout following the death of the family's patriarch. In Hansberry's play, all the characters are black, save one who is a representative of the all-white (naturally) Neighborhood Association who calls on them to implore them - or more accurately, to implicitly threaten them - to change their minds in order to keep his beloved neighborhood lily white, as it were.
Norris uses that character - Karl Lindner - as the stepping off point of his updated take on the story that examines the impact of racism, gentrification and politics on the lives of people who seek only to better their chances at life in which home ownership is an essential part of the American Dream. Utilizing humor and pathos to relate the story of the family selling their home in Clybourne Park, Norris effectively paints a picture of life in the late 1950s, which was just as rife with misconceptions about various races as what we see today in the 24/7 news cycle of the 21st century.
In fact, perhaps the most chilling take-away of Clybourne Park seems to be how little life has changed, how mistrust still looms over all our lives, regardless of our shared experience and the dreams of a post-racial society where we can accept each individual on his or her own merits.
Needless to say, Norris' play will instigate deeper conversations about the alarming realities of racism and "tribal" territorialism that many audience members might suspect we've left behind. Norris has done his part by creating a contemporary play that challenges convention, while making you feel uncomfortable enough to squirm in your seat when you recognize yourself among the people collected onstage. But it's now up to those same audience members to go home and do the heavy lifting associated with destroying the classism and racism that continues to divide Americans a century and a half after the Civil War and nine years after the election of the first African-American U.S. President heralded a new age in this country - an age that seems to have foundered among the wreckage of countless protests and continued divisions.
Norris' script, written in such a way to be both beautiful and profane at once, gives voice to the frustrations of generations of Americans, helping to express the oftentimes shocking selfishness that resides in each of us no matter how hard we try to hide it. As with all good theater, Clybourne Park is sure to challenge your most closely held beliefs and to, hopefully, promote deep reflection and consideration of what you can do to bridge the class divide in order finally to rid our lives of the soul-sucking ridiculousness of racism and the belief that anyone is better than someone else because of their ethnicity or, more appallingly, their skin color.
In Clybourne Park, we meet Bev and Russ, a comfortable middle-class white couple who are packing up their belongings to move from their once tony inner-city Chicago neighborhood for a new home in the gracious and growing suburbs, with its promise of a five-minute commute and removal from a heartrending personal tragedy that becomes evident in the play's first act. As they pack up bric-a-brac and candlesticks with the aid of their dutiful maid Francine, the couple "entertains" various neighbors who drop by in a misguided attempt to convince them to back out of the sale of their home to a family of outsiders.
As it becomes clear, in a plot device that everyone should know by now, the new buyers are indeed Lena Younger and her family from Hansberry's play, Clybourne Park takes on deeper meaning, its multi-hued shadings deepening into darker greys and blacks to draw sharper contrasts in the story being told onstage. Act One is set in 1959, concurrent with Hansberry's tale of The Youngers, while the second stanza takes place 50 years into the future as the Clybourne Park neighborhood is ripe for gentrification, with houses being updated and rehabilitated and Whole Foods replacing the neighborhood market where people have shopped for generations.
While Norris' plot weaves the tale to its ultimate climax, drawing upon Hansberry's original work for inspiration and an unshakeable foundation for Clybourne Park, it also rings more than a little manipulative. However, Norris handles the situtations deftly, ensuring that the characters explore the nooks and crannies of interpersonal relationships in such a way that proves theatrically compelling and thoroughly engaging.
But thanks to Norris' deft handling of the situation, his pitch-perfect take on the characters and, especially, the language they use, it remains a brilliant stroke of dramatic theatricality. While he moves you from point A to point B and thereafter, he paints a vivid portrait that has tremendous impact upon his audience. The impact of Norris' sharply written script may take you by surprise as you realize your own perpetuation of racist/sexist/societal stereotypes. In so doing, he shows the power of theater to transform and to illuminate the human condition. The impact can be transformative if you allow it to be.
DeVault's version of the play - performed against the backdrop of the show's central character, the very house at the center of the controversy in two different centuries (designed by Jim DeVault with an unerring eye to the time period in which it was constructed) - remains true to the restrictions of the script, honoring the source material in turn while giving his ensemble of actors a focus for their work.
Playing against type, Matt Smith is tremendously effective as the budding white supremacist Karl Lindner in Act One and as Steve, the new homeowner in 2009 who's trying to fund his own exorbitant dreams of home. Maggie Pitt is particularly compelling as Karl's deaf wife Betsy, but she more than holds her own as Act Two's Lindsey, who finds herself sometimes at loggerheads with her husband. Smith and Pitt play well off each other, showing off personal chemistry that makes them all the more believable in the process.
Doug Allen, as Act One's homeowner Russ Stoller, initially gives a stoic performance that allows his later dramatic emergence far more effective than it could otherwise have been, commanding the performance with his barely controlled rage and heartfelt grief (in a subplot that reveals why the Stollers are so eager to sell their much-loved family home). Caroline Prince, cast as Bev (Russ' 1950s sitcom-style wife) in the first act fares far better in the second act, effectively portraying a self-absorbed lawyer (whom we discover is the child of the Lindners in a moment of exposition) with a sense of entitlement.
Ethan Treutle, as an overly earnest pastor in Act One and a low-level political functionary thereafter, gives a memorable reading of the two vastly different roles, showing off impeccable timing in both stanzas and creating a sense of off-putting ineffectiveness as both characters.
Chandra Walton, as the Stollers' maid Francine and as Act Two's Lena, is the only other character with a connection to the Youngers (Lena Younger is her great aunt) and she uses her relation to argue for retaining the neighborhood's character. Walton gives an almost inscrutable performance in the first act, which allows her Act Two persona to be potentially volatile and more genuine at the same time. Preston Crowder, playing the husband of both Francine and Lena, is particularly engaging in both segments, creating a character who seems like someone you know in your own life.
Finally, Matthew Robert C. Laird completes the ensemble in a role that gives him little onstage time, but which helps to frame the play's action in dramatic fashion, limning the moments with poignancy and sadness that is certain to touch the heart of every audience member.
Clybourne Park. By Bruce Norris. Directed by Daniel DeVault. Presented by Circle Players at the Z. Alexander Looby Theatre, Nashville. Through April 2. For details, go to www.CirclePlayers.net. Call (615) 332-7529 for tickets and other information. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).
About the show: Daniel DeVault directs the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama - and 2012 Tony Award winner for best play - Clybourne Park, running March 17-April 2, at Nashville's Z. Alexander Looby Theatre in a new production from Circle Players.
"Clybourne Park speaks to the times and the cultural landscape we see in Nashville and across the country right now," DeVault suggests. "Norris examines gentrification and racial divisions, and poses sharp-edged questions to audiences-questions that do not have simple 'black-and- white' answers. Have the dividing lines actually moved in 50 years? Have we changed our structure or merely changed our face to hide behind expected political correctness? Has the foundation of our country evolved or are we merely altering the surface?
Picking up where Lorraine Hansberry left audiences at the end of her iconic (and historic) A Raisin in the Sun, Act 1 of Clybourne Park centers around an all-white community in 1950s Chicago as neighbors splinter over the black family about to move in.
Act 2 of Bruce Norris' play fast-forwards fifty years, and the same house-now in an all-black neighborhood-represents very different demographics: a white family now seeks to purchase, raze, and rebuild a larger structure in its place. What begins as polite conversation over the legalities of real estate quickly degrades as jokes fly and hidden agendas unfold.
One of the most-produced plays across the nation over the past five years, Clybourne Park is described as "a powerful look into race, privilege, gentrification, and communication" revealing just how far our ideas of the social and cultural landscape have changed - or have they?
"I hope audiences walk away from this production both curious and challenged; I hope they leave wanting to start conversations, to share ideas, and to think about how and if our city and our world has evolved," DeVault says. "Both daunting and significant, I hope audiences want to explore wherever we have come and wherever we are going as a society living in the present, living in a collection of communities, and living in a world of change."
Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park is presented by Circle Players March 17-April 2 at the Z. Alexander Looby Theatre, 2301 Rosa Parks Boulevard. Tickets are $15 and are available by calling (615) 332-7529 or at www.circleplayers.net/tickets.