Anyone who doubts that racism is still alive and well in America need spend only a few short hours at the Seattle Rep during the current run of Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Set in the same fictitious Chicago neighborhood that Lorraine Hansberry wrote about so poignantly in her 1959 masterpiece A Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park proves that although racism has gone underground 50 years later, it is no less corrosive.
Act I of Norris’ play is set at the same moment and in the same place as Raisin. But this time the focus is on the white sellers of the house that an (unseen) black family called the Youngers want to purchase and the attempts of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, headed by the overtly racist Karl Lindner, to prevent the sale. Lindner is the only carry-over character from Raisin and, having failed to dissuade the Youngers from their offer, he now turns his attention to the sellers Bev and Russ.
The genius of this act is in the way that Norris draws the characters of Bev and Russ. Karl is largely a caricature of the middle class Northern racist of the ‘50s, unafraid to hurl his bigotry at anyone who will listen, even when black people are present. Adroitly played by the talented Darragh Kennan, Karl demonstrates a few touches of humanity in his protectiveness of his deaf, pregnant wife but it is clear he will fight the coming societal shift tooth and nail.
Bev and Russ are altogether different. They are unaware until the eleventh hour that the purchasers of their house are black, but the revelation makes no difference to them. Their prejudice is far more subtle and completely unconscious, though equally pernicious.
Bev treats her black housekeeper Francine with a veneer of respect, but the true nature of their relationship surfaces when Bev tries to force Francine to accept a chafing dish that Bev won’t need in her new suburban home. Francine graciously rejects the gift, saying she has no more use for it than Bev, but only succeeds in provoking Bev to become ever more insistent. This is clearly a power struggle of sorts and it’s as obvious to us as it is to Francine that Bev would not treat her white friends the same way. In the end, although Francine wins out, Bev refuses to give up saying, “Think about it,” when Francine declines the gift for the fourth or fifth time.
Suzanne Bouchard as the stereotypical, clueless housefrau Bev, and Kim Staunton, the very portrait of restrained fury as Francine, play off each other beautifully. Their scenes together are highly charged under the surface of politesse and both do a masterful job of revealing enough emotion to make us squirm in our seats, unable to take our eyes from the stage.
Russ’ racism is more deeply suppressed than Bev’s, but also more powerful. Although initially he seems infuriated by Karl’s anti-black outbursts, Russ’ fury is in fact pointed in another direction — at the entire Clybourne Park community, which he holds responsible for his son Kenneth’s suicide. Norris spins out the revelations about Kenneth bit by bit and when we finally discover that the cause of his suicide was community rejection after an admission of heinous acts he committed, it’s a sucker-punch to the gut.
It’s also a logical explanation for Russ’ rapidly blossoming enthusiasm for selling to a black family. He knows that this will stick in the craw of his neighbors more than anything else he could do and Peter Crook conveys Russ’ racism so subtly that we hardly realize it’s there. When we finally do, it cuts us to the quick, a searing reminder of this country’s appalling history of race relations.
Marya Sea Kaminski as Karl’s wife Betsy and Teagle F. Bougere as Francine’s husband Albert have small roles, mostly as bystanders to the histrionics between Karl and Russ, but they bring dignity and grace to the drama playing out before them. Like the audience, they appear to welcome the break in the tension that the intermission brings. Aaron Blakely does his best with an underwritten role as the local pastor who attempts to keep the peace.
Act II opens in the same house in 2009. This time, Kaminski and Kennan are the young couple Lindsey and Steve, upwardly mobile professionals who know a good bargain when they see one in the graffiti-covered, now abandoned Younger home. In the 50 years between the acts, Clybourne Park has become a middle-class black neighborhood interspersed with drug-infested crack houses. Now the tables are turned. With their purchase about to be finalized, Lindsey and Steve face a black community outraged at their plans to tear down the house by replacing it with a new, larger one, destroying the historic character of the area in the process.
Like the limousine liberals of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Betsy and Steve see themselves as enlightened. In their own minds, they’ve moved into what they believe is a post-racial world. Betsy insists that “most of my friends are black,” even as Steve points out that she can hardly name one, and Steve feels free to tell an offensive racial joke to the black couple representing the Clybourne Park neighborhood. When the meeting between the two couples deteriorates into a shouting match to see who has the thickest skin, it’s clear that the similarities between 1959 and 2009 (or 2012) are greater than we’d like or perhaps expected.
The structure of Clybourne Park is such that both acts could stand alone, although the chance to see the two stories back to back and the same cast in different roles is fascinating. Kennan has a central role in both acts and although there are too many commonalities for comfort between his characters, he provides enough differentiation that Steve becomes even more horrific and offensive than Karl — who at least was open in his bigotry.
Kaminski and Staunton play their roles so differently in the second act, and are so differently costumed and made up, they are virtually unrecognizable. Almost silent in the first act, they let loose in the second, Staunton in her vitriol and Kaminski in her insistence that she and Steve are really helping the neighborhood rather than destroying its integrity.
Director Braden Abraham keeps the action moving without allowing it to devolve into farce. There are laughs to be sure, mostly nervous ones of discomfort from the audience, but at its core Clybourne Park is deadly serious and Abraham manages its physical and emotional demands with a steady hand. Scott Bradley’s set design magically transforms the ‘50s style home of Bev and Russ into a 2009 falling-down wreck of a place that cries out for a major renovation at the least.
About the only criticism that can be leveled at Clybourne Park — which has played to rave reviews in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles — is that the second act doesn’t have a sufficient dramatic arc. The hysterical emotional tone is largely the same throughout and there is none of the poignancy that permeates the first act.
But this is a minor flaw and in the end, Clybourne Park provides an important reminder — as if we needed it in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case. However noble our aspirations, America remains far from, as Bev hopes, a place where “we can all sit down together at one big table.”
If you go: Clybourne Park, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, through May 13. Tickets $15-65 and are available at the box office, by phone 206-443-2222 or toll-free at 877-900-9285, or online at www.seattlerep.org.