CLYBOURNE PARK is not an easy play on which to slap a label. Part drama, part social history, part cultural commentary, woven together with humor that, in turn, inspires laughter, makes you wince, or leaves you squirming uncomfortably in your seat, this is not your usual theatrical fare. Also well-crafted (it won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for drama) provocative and thought- provoking, Bruce Norris's play is an experience not to be missed.
Set in Chicago, the story unfolds in two acts - the first in 1959, the second in 2009 - in the same house that starts out as a comfortable home in the fictitious suburban neighborhood of Clybourne Park. The middle-aged couple who own the home, Bev and Russ Stoller (played by Jacqueline Reid and Bruce Holmes) are about to move. The neighborhood is white, their maid, Francine (Angela Littleton) is black and they have just broken the accepted social norms of the time and place, by selling their house to an African American family. Those are the basic facts that form the foundation for everything else that follows.
The first sign of trouble arrives in the form of Karl Lindner (Gregory Wagrowski) who turns up, accompanied by his very pregnant, deaf wife, Betsy (Jen Grigg) in order to persuade his friend not to sell the house to people who just 'won't fit in.' Karl is even prepared to put his money where his mouth is, offering to come up with a better price, if only Russ will change his mind.
It turns out that Russ's refusal to comply is less about race (he and Bev consider themselves to be 'progressives') and more about personal issues. He and Bev are moving, primarily, because of parental grief caused by their son, a soldier, who was badly treated by neighbors when he came back from the Korean war and ended up killing himself in that very same house.
The inability of the characters to even get along, let alone try to understand each other, is painfully evident almost every time they open their mouths. The situation is only made worse by the arrival of the local pastor (Evan Garrett) and, later, Francine's husband, Albert (Hakim Bellamy.) Human failings, out-and-out racism, real estate and social issues are all intertwined in a complex collage of relationships, skillfully interpreted by this talented team of actors.
Fast forward to 2009. The tables have turned and Clybourne Park has become a predominantly black neighborhood. The house is now abandoned and dilapidated, but, after being overrun for years with drugs, graffitti and crime, the neighborhood is once again ripe for gentrification. A well-heelEd White couple, Steve and Lindsey (Russ and Bev reincarnated and brought to life by the same two actors) are meeting there, with their lawyer and representatives of the local home-owners' association (Francine and Albert updated and redefined as Lena and Kevin.) The white newcomers want to tear down the house and put a mansion in its place; the black resident majority is anxious to prevent the influx of money from destroying the neighborhood's history and character.
Special shout outs go to Angela Littleton (Francine/Lena) and Hakim Bellamy (Albert/Kevin) who make particularly convincing transitions from servile underlings in the first act, to confident members of a superior social class in the second.
Ironically - and unfortunately - the final message seems to be that nothing has really changed very much in the intervening years between then and now. In spite of 'progress', underlying attitudes remain the same, regardless of who is expressing them. In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
CLYBOURNE PARK is playing at Fusion Theatre's home base, the Cell, through March 23rd and is, according to Co-Founder and Executive Director, Dennis Gromelski, completely sold out. But don't despair! It then transfers to the Kimo Theater, March 15th and 16th, before making a final appearance at the Lensic, in Santa Fe, on March 22nd and 23rd.So be sure to grab your tickets, before those performances sell out too. This is one play you don't want to miss.
Further information can be found at: www.fusionabq.org and www.lensic.org
Photo courtesy of Wes Naman