By David A. Rosenberg
Who says racism can’t be hilarious, as well as shocking? Long Wharf’s smashing revival of Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” is as humorous as it is frightening. Throwing a blinding spotlight onto a nation whose suppressed prejudices surface from subterranean muck, it’s a guilty pleasure, both profane and humane.
Taking off from Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (seen last year in Westport), the prize-winning “Clybourne” (Pulitzer, Tony) speculates on the aftermath of that earlier play’s premise. In it, you’ll remember, a black Chicago family decides to move out of a poor South Side neighborhood into Clybourne Park, a middle-class, white enclave. Although a representative from Clybourne tries to dissuade them, they bravely soldier on, leaving for an unknown but hopeful future.
Hansberry didn’t tell us what happens to the Younger clan after they move, but “Clybourne” fills in the gaps. In Act One, it’s 1959 and Russ and Bev, the whites who sold their house to the Youngers, are indifferent to the pleadings by the same spokesman from “Raisin” to renege on the deal.
Russ and Bev have had their own troubles with the community. When their son returned a troubled stint in Korea, he was shunned. More, his parents were looked upon as pariahs. An eventual tragedy left distraught mother and father anxious to get away from memories.
In Act Two, it’s 2009 and the Youngers are long gone from what has become an upper-middle-class black neighborhood of historic houses. A white family has bought the home, now covered in graffiti, intending to tear it down and rebuild, thereby erasing a history full of “a lot of pride and a lot of memories.” This time, it’s the local blacks who protest perceived desecration. Finally, tempers boil over and knives emerge, leading to a coda that is another tear in the social fabric, the culmination of what happens when a nation loses its reason.
Norris’ play is not a simplistic table-turner. Rather, the author delves into the brutality underlying our polite world of lawyers, real estate agents and contracts. Throw in tribal, territorial and historical references and the play becomes rich with subtleties, while also rich with laughs.
These are people who talk around and over each other, spouting euphemisms when confronted with issues of race, religion, class and sex. Language, instead of clarifying, actually obfuscates.
Director Eric Ting gets the rhythms just right. Characters at war with one another have easily penetrated façades so Ting must balance their overlapping, get-a-word-in-edgewise dialogue with the ferocity of their true motivations.
Alex Moggridge is powerful as villainous bullies, loudmouthed where the splendid Daniel Jenkins is seething as both the grief-stricken father and the handyman who uncovers the house’s tragic secret.
As a busy mother in the first half and a sarcastic lawyer in the second, Alice Ripley projects a sense of not belonging, while Melle Powers and Leroy McClain become the warmest, wisest, most forthright characters on stage. Jimmy Davis is fine as a hapless priest and an uptight agent, with Lucy Owen a sketch as a deaf wife in Act One and a temperamental one in Act Two, pregnant both times.
With sets by Frank Alberino, lighting by Tyler Micoleau and costumes by Linda Cho, this is a spot-on production. Combine a clever, literate script, accomplished actors and a director with a feel for the material and chances are you’ll have a winner. And so they have.