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Clybourne Park—Tony Award Winner Tackles Race Relations

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For me, there has always been one burning question about the much acclaimed play, A Raisin In The Sun. Why on Earth would the African-American Younger family want to move to Clybourne Park, the Chicago neighborhood where they were so obviously not wanted? Why not just take the money offered by Mr. Lindner of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association and live somewhere else where they’d be welcome?

While the Pulitzer Prize and Olivier Award winner doesn’t provide an answer, Clybourne Park does show us the situation the Youngers will be facing in 1959, and the kind of people who are going to be their neighbors. As the play opens, Russ (Frank Wood) and his wife, Bev (Christina Kirk), are packing up to leave their longtime home. They are visited by neighbors Jim (Brendan Griffin), an annoyingly sanctimonious but well-meaning clergyman, and later, by Karl (Jeremy Shamos) and his deaf wife, Betsy (Annie Parisse). Betsy is pregnant, and good natured; Karl is indignant, and desperately tries to prevent the sale of the home to a “colored” family. Drawn into the argument against her will is the maid, Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson), and her husband, Albert (Damon Gupton). Because they’re black, they have to endure stupid statements and questions. “Do you ski?” Karl inquires; when informed that they don’t, he triumphantly points out that this is a perfect example of the dissimilarities between people of different races.

As Act One progresses, we find that much of what seemed like idle chatter has been used to cover up the not-so-secret reason the house is being sold so cheaply. Russ and Bev’s son has committed suicide here, having confessed to atrocities during his time as a soldier in the Korean War. The couple can no longer bear the curious looks and the fact that they’re being ostracized by the neighborhood. Before they leave, they refuse to hold up the sale of the house, and an old army chest is dragged downstairs.

I especially loved the perfect Chicago accent Jeremy Shamos achieves. For those who are familiar with it, this regionalism is like no other, and a generalized Midwestern flattering of vowels just won’t do. Shamos also captures exactly the right tone for “Mr. Lindner.” I’d love to see in repertory the two plays in which this character appears, and any smart director would see the wisdom of casting Shamos for the project.

I was delighted to experience yet another touching and honest performance by the sublime Annie Parisse, one of my favorite actors. To every role she undertakes, she brings an irresistible combination of strength and vulnerability.

The Clybourne Park team has done a fine job of pulling the show together for maximum impact. There’s a tight script which follows a true and clever trajectory, as written by Bruce Norris. The dialogue is crisp and witty, and while I didn’t find the punch lines particularly funny, the audience loved the jokes. Pam MacKinnon has directed with a deft hand, and occasional flashes of brilliance. The lower middle class mid-century room and furniture from Scenic Designer Daniel Ostling is pitch perfect. Ilona Somogyi’s costume design is right on the money, and must have been taken from photos of how people actually dressed; no one could have more skillfully imagined Bev’s plaid shirtwaist dress.

In Act Two, the same actors play different characters fifty years later. In 2009, it’s a white family who owns the now derelict house; they want to tear it down to build a McMansion.

The Black neighborhood residents are resistant to the change, and soon, the proceedings turn into a donnybrook of tasteless jokes and rude remarks. Stereotyping and distrust are still with us.

Clybourne Park is at times too rambling, and very distasteful. It forces us to look inward at our own prejudices, and outward at our still troubling national attitudes about race and traditions. In this election year, we must also acknowledge our disturbing lack of the ability to disagree without disparaging those who hold a different viewpoint from our own. Welcome to Clybourne Park.

Photos by Nathan Johnson

Clybourne Park
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th Street

Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.

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