NEW HAVEN — In 1959, a young Chicago born playwright named Lorraine Hansberry broke new ground in New York with A Raisin in the Sun, the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. Based in part on her family’s personal experience in trying to buy a house in a white neighborhood, the show ran for over two years, received prestigious awards, and has been revived, made into movies, and used as part of the curriculum in many schools.
Playwright Bruce Norris was introduced to the film version in his seventh grade classroom, in an all white Texas school district specifically formed to avoid its students being bused to integrated Houston schools. It dawned on him at the time that he and his classmates were essentially the people of Clybourne Park, the neighborhood where the heroine of the play, Lena Younger, hoped to buy a house in order to give her family a decent place to live. They were the people whose representative comes in the second act as the villain, Karl Lindner, offering money to the Youngers if they would change their minds and not move in.
This idea stayed with him, culminating in 2011 with his own Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, aptly named Clybourne Park. Long Wharf continues its production of the work through June 2.
The first act is set in 1959, and is directly connected to Hansberry’s work, except that it tells the story from the viewpoint of the Clybourne Park “community.” Frank Alberino’s set captures a typical middle-class interior, complete with dark wainscoting and a central oak staircase.
Russ and Bev are the middle aged couple who have sold their house and are packing up for the move, with the assistance of their maid, Francine, and her husband Albert, when they are visited by their friend Jim, a local minister, and Karl Linder, who comes with his wife, Betsy, in a last frantic attempt to persuade Russ to change his mind.
The characters speak in euphemisms here, not saying what they are actually thinking. Karl and Jim stress the importance of “community” and “shared culture” rather than acknowledge their bigotry. There is humor in the dog-collared Jim’s earnestly voiced attempt to coax Francine into agreeing that she would be more comfortable food shopping at stores which carry the things “your own people” eat (even though it isn’t Francine who is buying the house), and there is broader comedy drawn from the very pregnant Betsy, who is deaf, and cheerfully misunderstands everything her husband says.
Francine and Albert understand, though, and their dignified but non-committal politeness set the moral tone for the situation. At the same time playwright Norris adds a new element to the story with Russ and Bevs’ reason for moving. Another elephant in the room is the tragic story of their only son, who died under circumstances that only gradually become clear, symbolized by a heavy tin trunk that must be carried down stairs so that Russ can dispose of it.
Act Two is set in the same house, fifty years later, a bare shell, its walls scarred with graffiti. Sitting in a circle of aluminum lawn chairs, the same actors appear in new roles: Alex Moggridge and Lucy Owen, who played Karl and Betsy, have become Steve and Lindsay, a yuppie couple who want to move into what is now a predominantly black neighborhood. They have bought the 406 Clybourne Street at a bargain price, and have architecturally designed plans to tear it down and replace it with something larger and more modern.
Leroy McClain and Melle Powers, who were Albert and Francine, have morphed into Kevin and Lena, attractive young Buppies (black urban professionals), clearly their equals in education and sophistication, who have concerns about the impact of gentrification on their community.
Alice Ripley’s Bev is now their lawyer, Kathy, there to protect and explain their right to rebuild, and to assure the others that the architectural changes will be limited, so as not to change the character of the block, while Jimmy Davis — previously the Reverend Jim — has become Tom, the lawyer for the local homeowners association.
Finally, in a turn reminiscent of a Shakespearean clown figure, Daniel Jenkins goes from playing the embittered Russ to being Dan, a lumbering, cheerfully chatty workman, who seems to be struggling with a blockage in the plumbing system.
Where the first act was strongly dramatic, the second act is shaped by the kind of comedy in which people talk without listening to one another, or realizing what they themselves are saying. At the outset the two opposing couples are warmly civil, enthusiastically finding common interests. Kevin works across the street from Steve, and they are both interested in good schools. In contrast to 1959, the message seems to be: Welcome to the neighborhood!
Beneath the surface of Lindsey’s political correctness and Kevin’s amiability simmer layers of suppressed resentment. Steve and Lena begin to trade barbed comments and innuendos, even as the others try to keep things pleasant, but as in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, things escalate into a brouhaha that is as funny as it is foolish.
The conflict culminates in an exchange of rude, racially charged “jokes” that Steve and Lena dare to throw at each other, despite the frantic urging of their spouses “not to tell that one.” The only thing that saves the situation from becoming violent is the reappearance of Daniel, bearing the trunk he has dug up from the backyard, heavy with the weight of symbolism, of memories, and reminders of the frailty of human connections.
There is not a clear message or moral to be drawn from this (as there is from Hansberry’s Raisin). Rather, as playwright Norris says in the playbill: “I have no cogent manifesto, I just have a whole bunch of psychological kinks. [Like] the desire to unmask the lies about American family … The best you can hope for is to make people slightly uncomfortable … Why should I write something that is not germane to audiences’ lives?”
Perhaps Clybourne Park will make you feel a bit uncomfortable, but it will definitely make you think. And it will definitely keep you absorbed . In the end, it is a wonderful piece of theater, a well deserved winner of the 2011 Pulitzer, and an example of Long Wharf at its best.
(Call 203-787-4282 or visit LongWharf.org for ticket, curtain and other details.)