BWW Review: Pulitzer Winner CLYBOURNE PARK Takes on Gentrification
Did you know that Clarksville is the oldest surviving Freedom Town west of the Mississippi, and was founded by freedman Charles Clark in 1871 as a settlement for freed African-American slaves? Maybe you did, but most of us are unaware that, by the mid-1970's, gentrification was booming in Austin, or at least in Clarksville, just as it is now. In 1918, the state mandated that the black people of several of these freed communities (including Wheatville, Pleasant Hill, and Clarksville) move to East Austin or go without the benefit of city utilities. Many families in Clarksville survived the push, but by 1968, lost the battle to a highway that would run parallel to the Missouri-Pacific Railroad. (MoPac, see what they did there?) At that point 33 families were forced to leave. Fast forward to 2016, and gentrification has displaced so many African-Americans in Austin, it is the only city in the nation to experience an absolute numerical decline in the black population during a decade of spectacular growth.
But this is a review about a play. And it's a play worthy of producing and seeing in any city that claims to be as progressive and liberal as Austin. It's a couple hours worth of good theatre by a theatre company that consistently produces excellent work. We can sit in the dark and laugh at ourselves and race relations and enjoy some theatre that is, by the way,suffering from gentrification itself.
Bruce Norris's Pulitzer prize winning CLYBOURNE PARK is a "spin-off" if you will, of A RAISIN IN THE SUN. Set in the same-ish neighborhood in 1954, CLYBOURNE PARK includes one of the characters from A RAISIN IN THE SUN, who in the first act has come to convince his grieving (having lost their son to suicide when he returned from the Korean War) neighbors to not sell their house because the buyers are black. Director Nathan Jerkins has done a great job with his cast emphasizing this undercurrent of grief in the first act. Babs George (Bev) and Stephen Price (Russ) give poignant weight to these parents haunted by their son's death. Their local clergyman (Ryan Crowder) even stops in to check on them. The visit is interrupted by their neighbor Karl (played by the wonderful Rob Matney) with his deaf and pregnant wife Betsy (played with infectious joy and energy by Liz Beckham) in tow. Karl has what he feels is a more pressing matter for them than the loss of their son. It seems a black family(the protagonists from A RAISIN IN THE SUN) have just bought Russ and Bev's home. Arguments over the problems of integrating a neighborhood ensue and eventually involve the black maid Francine (Michelle Alexander) and her husband Albert (Jarrett King). Russ finally has enough of the arguing and kicks everyone out, reminding them that he no longer wants to live in a neighborhood that rejected his son and contributed to his suicide. A suicide that happened, as it turns out, in the house he just sold.
Act II occurs in the same house, in 2009, with a different set of characters played by the same actors. Turns out the neighborhood is now all black, and a white couple want to move in to the house. (Sound like your city?) This time Matney and Beckham play Steve and Lindsey who are buying the house and go toe to toe with Lena and Kevin (Alexander and King) who represent the Housing Authority. They're supported in this act by their lawyers (Kathy and Tom) played by George and Crowder. Sounds confusing but it's really not.=
Talk of housing codes degenerates into racial issues and an abandonment of all political correctness entirely. It's a free for all that includes references to tap dancing and snow skiing, racial jokes that are simultaneously entirely inappropriate and hilarious in a way that great black comedy should be. In the middle of it all we learn the lawyer Kathy is Karl and Betsy's daughter, that Lena is related to the Younger's, who bought the house from Russ and Bev, that Tom is gay and that the handyman Dan (Price) has found a buried foot locker with a suicide note in it.
The rest of the synopsis should wait for a performance.
The show twists and turns and moves a bit like a ride in a Mustang on 2222. That's not a bad thing. The cast is polished and refined, and if the show lacked anything, it might be a sense of ease. This is a strong and notable cast, but not everyone seemed as relaxed and authentic as Matney and Beckham. Especially Beckham, who was clearly having fun. This is the kind of show that really takes off when the cast has fun, and as the run progresses, it's likely the ride will get even better.
So back to Clarksville. If you value authentic diversity, and what gentrification might mean in the heart of the neighbors we're losing in Austin, this show will appeal. It provides perspective in ways studies and reports and City Council meetings cannot. It's art that supports dialogue and insight. As director Nathan Jerkins notes in the program, "Reframing abstract ideals to the context of an actual neighborhood can encourage us to find flexibility at times,and at other times, it can reaffirm our need to take a stand."
So go see some theatre, before Austin gets so gentrified you have to drive to Salado to see a play.
CLYBOURNE PARK by Bruce Norris
Running time: 125 minutes