BWW Reviews: Tennessee Rep's CLYBOURNE PARK is Theater At Its Most Challenging
Growing up as a baby boomer in the South, you carry with you at least a modicum of guilt-regardless of whatever your upbringing actually may have been-about racism and the impact of one's skin color on the society in which you are raised. Here in the South, we're well aware of our history founded upon racist attitudes and built upon the backs of slaves, so we struggle with racism continually and it is never far from our minds-to the point, quite honestly, that we may have come much further in our consideration of the racist conundrum than our Yankee (old habits die hard) counterparts. And in these upwardly mobile times, there is a very good chance you might find yourself struggling anew with racial stereotypes and archetypes if you are among the pioneers of neighborhood gentrification.
So it should come as no surprise that Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park-the sharply written Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play that closed on Broadway only days before its debut at TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre as the 2012-13 season opener from Tennessee Repertory Theatre-would resonate so deeply with Nashville audiences. Although there's a tendency to think of Tennessee Rep's well-heeled audiences as vapid, vacuous yuppies (which comes with the realization that you are, indeed, included among that number), you must admit that they are concerned, involved individuals who realize that they are being indicted with every word and every scene set onto a page by a creative, imaginative playwright.
It goes without saying that after witnessing Norris's somehow complex, yet rather simplistic, comedy-drama unfold before them-as enacted by an amazing ensemble of Nashville actors under the direction of Rene Copeland, the woman who might very well be the best stage director to be found within the city limits-that they will continue the debate raised by the characters in Clybourne Park long after the figurative curtain has rung down on Gary Hoff's extraordinarily detailed set.
The realization that Norris' play will precipitate further consideration and conversations about the altogether alarming realities of racism and "tribal" territorialism will come as an after-thought. Initially, audiences are in thrall of the superb performances by the members of Copeland's ensemble of actors, each of whom shines in their respective roles and who provide the play's heart and soul. Clearly, Norris has done his part by creating a contemporary play that challenges convention and makes you feel uncomfortable enough to squirm in your seats when you recognize yourself among the people collected onstage. Using language that is at once both ridiculously beautiful and profanely crass, Norris has given voice to the frustrations of generations of people, helping to express the sometimes shocking selfishness that resides in each of us no matter how hard we try to hide it.
And to think that Norris has used a classic of the American theater as the springboard for his new play to grab hold of the collective consciousness of his audience is mind-blowingly convoluted and, quite frankly, brilliant. Using Lorraine Hansberry's timeless A Raisin in the Sun as inspiration, Norris comes calling at the theater with what at first seems a quaint, neo-traditional play that evokes the very best of American drama-then he takes an unexpected turn, propelling the play's action ahead by some 50 years to examine the very same issues offered up by Hansberry in her historic yet fictionalized treatise on events in her own life.
In Clybourne Park, Norris introduces us to 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 silver candlesticks with the aid of their dutiful maid Francine, the couple "entertains" a coterie of neighborhood habitués to arrive in a misguided attempt to convince them not to go through with the sale of the family home to outsiders.
As it becomes clear-and which in a plot device that everyone should know by now-that the new buyers are indeed Lena Younger and her family from Hansberry's earlier, equally heralded, drama, 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. While Norris' plot weaves the tale to great effect (only one character from Raisin makes an appearance in the new play), drawing upon Hansberry's original work for inspiration and an unshakeable foundation for Clybourne Park, it borders on the manipulative.