Apr 12, 2013

Tension and Release

NOTE: Next week I'll see Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park for the third time, after taking it in on Broadway and at Woolly Mammoth, when I visit Baltimore's Center Stage, where it's running in rep with another play inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Beneatha's Place, by Centerstage a.d. Kwame Kwei-Armah. Until I'm able to weigh in with a comparison of all three productions, I reprint below a story I wrote for American Theatre's October, 2011 issue, when the play was in the midst of several productions nationwide after winning the Pulitzer the previous spring.

Forty years ago, the Jeffersons moved into the Bunkers’ quiet Astoria, Queens, neighborhood, but not before Archie—that cigar-chomping avatar of Nixon’s “Silent Majority”—did his level best to stop them. In a 1971 episode of the pioneering TV sitcom “All in the Family,” Archie reaches out to one of his few black acquaintances, the young dry-cleaning delivery man, Lionel, and asks him to persuade the new black neighbors to reconsider, even offering to buy back the house with money pooled together from among the Bunkers’ white neighbors.

“They’ll be happier with their own kind,” says Lionel, anticipating Archie’s argument (and not letting on that it’s his family that’s movin’ on in). “You took the words right out of my mouth,” Archie replies, reasoning, “There’s not a chicken shack or a rib joint within miles of here.” Lionel feigns surprise and drawls, with dripping sarcasm, “No ribs? Lawd Awmighty, what is we gonna do?”

A pair of moments in Bruce Norris’s searing social satire of American race and real estate, Clybourne Park, echo this racism-baiting minstrelsy, not to mention the topical fearlessness of “All in the Family.” When Karl Lindner, a nerdy white homeowner in 1959 Chicago with a similar buy-out-the-black-interlopers scheme, suggests to a black couple that they wouldn’t like the offerings at the local grocery, the black man, Albert, deadpans, “Do they carry collards and pig feet? Cuz I sho couldn’t shop where they didn’ sell no pig feet.”

In the second act, set in 2009, after the neighborhood has gone through the depressingly familiar cycle of white flight, racial ghettoization and revitalization/gentrification, the tables have turned; now it’s the black couple, firmly ensconced on the block, that is skeptical of the white influx. But the male half of that couple, Kevin, still can’t resist messing with the assembled Caucasians; after watching them dance gingerly around the subject of the neighborhood’s former “trouble” with drugs and crime, he gestures to his wife and says, with a flawless poker face, “Cuz ya know, the two of us wuz both crackheads.”

As an index of how far we haven’t come on the ever-urgent issues of race and class, Clybourne Park is a masterfully constructed double-decker house of cards, and not all of them are race cards: There’s also a framing ghost story invoking America’s foreign wars, and running themes of tourism and territorialism that ground the play’s ostensibly black-and-white drama in a broader context of post-colonial anxiety and evolutionary determinism.

But with its echoes not only of a vintage TV sitcom but of the even older play that inspired it, 1959’s Raisin in the Sun, Bruce Norris’s wrenchingly funny, deeply unsettling Pulitzer winner is also a reminder of how timid and politically correct our theatrical discourse has become. (David Mamet’s Race might count as an antidote if it were less strenuously vying to be one.) It’s not just that Norris confronts comfortable, well-heeled theatre audiences where they live, literally, with topics they’d rather avoid, and makes them laugh in the bargain; nor is it just the sneaky craft with which he scrambles our sympathies, making us see ourselves both in a group of fearful, vulnerable racists and in a smug klatch of self-righteous contemporary liberals. It’s that Clybourne Park has become, in a series of acclaimed productions throughout the U.S. (and one in London), a flashpoint, a pressure valve—a referendum on the decorum of our purportedly post-racial society, in which a black family occupies the most prestigious address in the country, even as the “Chocolate City” they live in recently shed its black-majority status in the face of a surge of gentrification.

Indeed, though ostensibly set in Chicago, the play may have resonated most strongly in our capital city, in a production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company that bowed in the spring of 2010, then returned this past summer to break box-office records. For artistic director Howard Shalwitz, who directed the production, rehearsals modeled the engagement the play would demand of its audiences.

“Even though Bruce’s main target of satire is the white people, there are always black and white people in the room,” Shalwitz points out. “The challenge is to play each character from their own point of view and not make a commentary from the outside. That led us into many complicated conversations—I felt like we went through the experience of the play in the rehearsal hall.” The result, by opening night, was that “the actors felt like they became citizen-actors—they conceived of their roles as a part of their citizenship.”

For Pam MacKinnon, who directed the world premiere in February 2010 at New York’s Playwrights Horizons, rehearsals also modeled the play’s central rhythm of tension-and-release, from the repressed 1950s of the first act to the second act’s latter-day free-for-all.

“It definitely brought up huge issues,” says MacKinnon. In particular, she said, actresses forced to appear docile or infantilized in the first act—Crystal Dickinson, who played the black maid, Francine, and Annie Parisse, who played Karl’s smiling deaf wife, Betsy—occasionally chafed at their characters’ oppression, and relished the relative expressive freedom of the characters they played in the second act (the self-possessed Lena and the explosively pregnant Lindsey, respectively).

“It was hard for them to be there in the first act and not have the equipment, the language, to respond the way they felt they would,” says MacKinnon, who will also direct the play at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum and on Broadway.

“Their inward response was clear to them, but they had no external manifestation of that response in the script. So, though I usually try to work on a play in order, in this case we started to split our days between the acts to give the actors a pressure valve; we would never spend a whole day in just one act or the other. It became a rehearsal-hall rhythm, both obeying Bruce’s worlds and trying to connect to these deliciously complicated people.”

You might think that Amy Morton, who directed the current Chicago production at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, feels that Clybourne Park has finally come home. Norris, after all, is a Steppenwolf colleague, and Morton has directed and performed his work before. But in fact, Chicago audiences may be uniquely equipped to see the play’s universality.

“Bruce is very purposefully unspecific about the exact location of the house,” says Morton. “He’s included Chicago street names, but they don’t have any relation to each other.” And though she says she’d prefer to leave the “macrocosmic view to the audience,” she acknowledges a comparison to Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County (in which she originated the role of Barbara), whose larger themes lurked unmistakably outside the dark family comedy at its center. In Clybourne, too, “The house is a big character,” Morton concedes, “and there’s a ghost in the house. With the changes that happen to the house between Act 1 and Act 2, if you wanna view the house as the country...” She leaves the thought hanging.

If Washington, D.C., and Chicago audiences recognized their own real-estate stories in the play, audiences in the famously progressive Bay Area—where Clybourne Park played earlier this year—responded most strongly to the play’s scabrous, air-clearing discourse.

“When Steve in Act 2 says, ‘Can we talk about race?’ the room would just go crazy,” says Jonathan Moscone, who directed the play at the American Conservatory Theater. “Bay Area audiences know they live inside a bubble of political correctness, and this play goes further down the road than anyone expects it to in upsetting that.”

He singles out a moment in the second act, when Steve—the white guy who asked for a dialogue about race, only to see it degenerate into a frenzy of name-calling—complains about “white suburban assholes still driving around with the yellow-ribbon magnets on their SUVs in support of some bullshit war.” Says Moscone, “That would get the audience applauding most nights. And then the next line, where Kevin, the black character, responds that he has three yellow ribbons—one for each member of his family serving overseas—completely threw them off.”

Indeed, it’s something you can almost imagine a modern-day Lionel Jefferson saying to a yuppified Meathead. But if Clybourne Park were merely a series of tart one-liners, it might be little more than a stage sitcom. Moscone, who calls Norris a “modern-day Molière,” thinks the play sticks because it transcends topicality. “I had people say to me, ‘I’m from Chicago, I know about white flight,’“ says Moscone. “People think they know what this play is about, but I think they experience it beyond their understanding.”

1 comment:

Julie said...

Man, you are a Norris junkie. Your level of dedication is impressive, sir. It will not surprise you to hear that when I go to London next month, I have no intention of seeing his The Low Road.