f you’re looking for a play that soft-peddles America’s racial history, painting it as a story of reconciliation — like Memphis or Hairspray — Clybourne Park is not it. The Bruce Norris Pulitzer Prize winning two-act play, written in response to Lorraine Hansberry‘s A Raisin in the Sun, is currently running at the Walter Kerr Theater. Directed by Pam MacKinnon, Clybourne Park eschews platitudes and revels in the uncomfortable humor that often surrounds interracial interaction, in which racism and privilege lay unspoken just below the surface of the conversations. Similar to David Mamet’s Race, Clybourne Park unflinchingly dissects the history of racism and resentment on both sides of the black/white color divide.
Act one of Clybourne Park takes place in 1959 Chicago in the living room of a middle-class White Rotarian family that is grieving the death of their son and preparing to move to the suburbs where Russ, the breadwinner, will only have a six-and-a-half minute commute to his newly located office. As neighbors drop by, it becomes clear that Russ is engaged in breaking an unspoken, but widely known, code of the neighborhood by selling to the Black family from the aforementioned A Raisin in the Sun. Conflicts ensue, a prediction of declining property values is made, little is resolved and life goes on.
The second act begins in 2009 when a young professional White couple who is expecting a child purchases the 1959 house from its current Black owners and decides to replace the structure. Their plans for the new home bring them into conflict with the neighborhood association. Ostensibly, the meeting between the White couple, the neighborhood association and their representatives is about how to better conform the new structure to the architectural style of the neighborhood. It soon devolves at first implicitly, and then explicitly into a brutal conversation about gentrification and the resentment the process stirs within both the established residents and the new comers.
Like the late 1990s, New York Yankees, the cast of Clybourne Park includes no breakaway stars. The play succeeds, much like the Yankees did, because each member rises to the demands of their role. If a Derek Jeter must be identified, the prize would go to Christina Kirk. She shoulders much of the drama and comedy in the first act as not so happy housewife Bev, and gracefully tones down her performance during act two as Kathy, a secondary character in terms of the plot. Through Kirk as Bev, the play reveals the troubled inner life of a housewife who understands that her migration to the suburbs will terminate all of the friendships and roles within the community by which she has come to define herself. Bev is also the vessel through which the innocence of the early states of the Civil Rights Movement is presented. She truly believes that the relationship she enjoys with Francine, her maid, is closer to girlfriends than employer/employee.
Rarely in life are the beneficiaries and victims of racial prejudice able to undergo a reversal of roles. In Clybourne Park, the changing demographics of a fictional once and future White neighborhood reveal how far America has advanced since the early Civil Right Movement of the 1950s, and how far the nation in 2012 still has to travel before achieving the dream Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. loquaciously described August 28, 1963.