The More Things Change
While watching a play, movie or TV show, have you ever wondered about the other side of the story? Or what happens afterwards? If so, Clybourne Park, which is now at Long Wharf through June 2, gives you an answer to those questions.
Playwright Bruce Norris turns his attention and creativity to the very famous play, A Raisin in the Son by Lorraine Hansbury. Raisin tells the story of an African-American family in Chicago in 1959 who uses a life insurance check to purchase a home in a white suburb. It focuses on the Younger family and the conflict between the matriarch, her son and his family, and her daughter about how to use the proceeds.
In Clybourne Park, Norris has used the purchase of the home in the white suburb as the jumping off point for his exploration about race and real estate. Act I imagines the home sellers, Russ and Bev, and their neighbors. They are moving farther out to be, as Russ says, six and a half minutes from his office, but there is another more important and poignant reason for the move.
A neighbor, Karl, played by Alex Moggridge as typical small town businessman, arrives to tell them the news that their real estate agent apparently never mentioned: the home is being sold to an African-American family. Karl is the only character in Clybourne Park that actually appears in A Raisin in the Sun; in that play he arrives to try to convince -- and perhaps threaten -- the Younger family to not buy the house. Here he tries to convince Russ and Bev to not sell. The other neighbors are equally unsettled by the news.
Karl blunders along, to the dismay of his very pregnant wife, Betsy, with all the clichés about property values and "tipping the neighborhood." Drawn into the fray are Russ and Bev's African American maid (Francine) and her husband (Albert).
Act II takes play in 2009, and another group of seven people are gathered in the now decaying house. Another debate about real estate and race ensues. This time Lindsey and Steve are up-and-coming professionals who have purchased the house and are trying to get agreement from the neighborhood association for their planned improvements which include, apparently, tearing it down and replacing it with new construction.
At this meeting they are joined by their lawyer, the representative of the association and two residents, an African American couple (Lena and Kevin). Again the discussion becomes rancorous. Is the association concerned that the house will be destroyed OR is it more concerned that the new owners are white?
The seven member cast plays roles in both acts -- but many of their characters are very similar. Moggridge plays the tactless and prejudiced Karl in Act I and the equally tactless Steve in Act II. Lucy Owens plays the pregnant and deaf (symbolism anyone?) Betsy in Act I and the pregnant conciliator, Lindsay in Act II. But Melle Powers as Francine/Lena and Leroy McClain as Albert/Kevin seem to have really changed; they have achieved equality and are no longer willing to be quiet.
Though this play won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony award, it relies a little too much on coincidence and improbability. It seems unlikely the realtor would not have mentioned the race of the buyers in Act I. And was it really necessary to have two of the characters in Act II claim direct connections to previous occupants of the house? It might have been stronger without those.
Director Eric Ting and the ensemble cast does excellent job with the piece that will certainly get you talking and thinking about the issues it raises. Although we may wish it weren't so, these issues that are still very much a part of the American consciousness.
Clybourne Park is at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater through June 2. For tickets and information call the box office at 203-787-4282 or online at www.longwharf.org.
This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers May 29, 2013 and online at Zip06.com.