SpeakEasy's "Clybourne Park": Razing in the Sun

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “Clybourne Park”, by Bruce Norris, comes with quite a pedigree of much-deserved prizes: the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 2012 Tony as Best Play and, in its London iteration, both the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards as Best Play. Norris has fashioned an ingenious work that takes place in 1959 in the first act with seven characters, and the second act in 2009 with eight other characters. Attention must be paid to such a scheme, in order to appreciate fully his complex motifs that keep recurring among these two casts of characters. A first-time viewer could profit from a scorecard.

In the first act, homeowners Bev (Paula Plum) and Russ (Thomas Derrah), with help from their maid Francine (Marvelyn McFarlane) and her husband Albert (DeLance Minefee), are packing up their belongings after having sold their house. We soon come to realize that it’s their house that the Younger family from Lorraine Hansberry‘s “Raisin in the Sun” have bought. Bev and Russ are visited by their clergyman Jim (Tim Spears) and a neighboring couple, Karl Lindner (the sole, and soulless, white character who also appears in “Raisin”, here played by Michael Kaye) and his pregnant wife Betsy (Philana Mia), who happens to be deaf. Karl reveals that the purchasing family is black, and that he has already visited the Youngers twice in a failed attempt to buy them off. What ensues is a heated argument, which on the surface is about property values, but on a more profound level is also, as Norris has described his own work, “about race, property and territory”. The act ends with Russ burying a trunk, and the sad memories it contains from a tragedy two and a half years prior.

In the second act, the racial tension fifty years later takes a while to surface, as it’s far subtler and more insidious, subliminal and insincere, as a new cluster of people (none of whom appeared in the first act, although some of those characters would only be in their seventies and eighties in 2009) are debating the other side of the coin. Now this neighborhood, predominantly black, is becoming gentrified. The prospective new white owners, Steve (Kaye) and Lindsey (Mia), intend to raze this house which the Youngers moved into and erect a taller and larger one. Their lawyer, Kathy (Plum) who happens to be the adult daughter of the Lindners seen in the first act, negotiates with a black couple who represent the current neighborhood association with its height and historical preservation concerns, Lena (McFarlane) and Kevin (Minefee); Lena is presumably named after her great aunt, Mama Younger of “Raisin”. The other character onstage as this act begins is Tom (Spears), a single man who is also a neighbor. These six people begin their discussion fairly civilly, until some politically incorrect jokes surface, laying bare some deep-seated biases lurking under the surface congeniality. Meanwhile, a workman, Dan (Derrah), has dug up an old trunk (the one Russ buried at the end of the first act), revealing a long-forgotten tragic incident.

There will not be a quiz. A theatergoer who’s paying close attention might pick a nit about Karl’s described (second) visit to the Youngers’, when they reject his offer, which in “Raisin” occurs the day their movers have come; in this play, subsequent to Karl’s visit, Bev and Russ aren’t moving for two days. Still, it’s a clever, nay brilliant, idea that allows Norris to compare and contrast racism then and now. It’s also of interest to note that Hansberry’s original ending showed the Youngers waiting with guns for whites to attack them once they moved in. She never used that ending but chose an open-ended yet much more hopeful one, when Mama at the very last minute took her precious but pathetic plant along with her, soon to be replanted in their new home.

Director M. Bevin O’Gara magnificently helms a cast who are all, except for Derrah and Plum (both at the top of their form), making their debuts at Speakeasy. Kaye, McFarlane, Mia, Minefee and Spears are wonderful. In the first more tragic act, it is Derrah who anchors the action, mesmerizing us with his pain and bringing us to tears, and Plum whose desperation breaks our hearts. In the second hilarious act, it is Mia who bursts the hypocritical bubble of superficial harmony, making us laugh at our own prejudices and shortcomings. It should be noted here how vitally important the setting is in grasping who’s who in act two. A recent regional production with a vast open set left its audience initially clueless as to who all these people were. Fortunately, Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco’s set helps focus one’s attention on the various antagonists and their inter-relationships, immediately clarifying them. The other technical credits are all perfect, from the Costume Design by Mary Lauve to the Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan and Sound Design by Arshan Gailus.

Much of the brilliance of the play lies in its parallels between the play’s acts (the same church bells, the references to a “retarded” person, a crepe myrtle tree). The point may be that some things, and some people, never change; even racism, albeit sublimated, endures. Near the end of the play, in a flashback, Bev naively sighs: “I really believe things are about to change for the better. I firmly believe that”. Unfortunately, it is clear to us that this won’t be true. What is abundantly clear, however, is that just as Hansberry gave us insight into many defects in the American dream for her era, Norris has given us another mirror reflecting the unfulfilled promise of our own time. Fifty years from now, perhaps yet another playwright will define that dream as finally attained, the dream no longer deferred. Or not. In the interim, we should cherish this incredibly wise play, performed by a pluperfect cast, for its blazing truth and honesty.

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