Clybourne Park Tackles Racial Issues With Finesse

The Arden's outstanding cast makes this Pulitzer Prize-winning response to A Raisin in the Sun a must-see show.

Stepping into the Arden Theatre’s Arcadia Stage you are immediately transported. From the program you already know that the first act is set in 1959. But looking at James Konzer’s stunning set for Clybourne Park, this written information is superfluous. From the wooden staircase and worn living room furniture, it feels permanent and classically familiar—as if it could be the setting for other familial masterworks set in that period, like Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. To then watch, during the intermission (as I strongly recommend that you do), as the stage crew transforms it into a dismantled, dilapidated home in 2009, you realize that this play is something new.

Written as a response to Lorraine Hansberry’s much acclaimed A Raisin in the Sun, Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park—the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama—also focuses on the continued struggle of race and class in America. Yet in Clybourne’s first act, we watch as the white neighborhood deals with the idea of a black family (Raisin’s Youngers) moving in. The owners, grieving parents Russ (David Ingram) and Bev (Julia Gibson), upon learning of the buyers’ race are indifferent—they simply want to escape the house’s memories. But their friend (and reverend) Jim (Steve Pacek) and neighbor Karl (Ian Merrill Peakes) try to dissuade them. In the second act it is 50 years later and Clybourne Park has become all-black. Now a young white couple, Steve (Peakes) and Lindsey (Maggie Lakis) are trying to buy the property in this “gentrifying” neighborhood so that they can build a new home. However, Lena (Erika Rose) and Kevin (Josh Tower) from the neighborhood association have some concerns.

Adeptly directed by Edward Sobel, Clybourne’s cast is superb. Gibson’s Bev has a wonderful, manic energy (which recalls Debra Jo Rupp’s Kitty on the television series That ‘70s Show) but with an underlying sadness. Constantly buzzing in movement and speech you sense that if she is quiet or stands too still for too long, she might fall apart. Ingram is outstanding as Russ; his stoicism is a perfect foil to Bev. The moment he finally unleashes is immensely poignant. Also, Peakes and Rose give tremendous performances: His bullish, uncensored Karl/Steve and her quiet but unwithering Francine/Lena.

What is astonishing about the play is that it is, in fact, two separate one acts. Yes the actors are the same and there are familial connections between the first and second act characters, but the tone, the dialogue, and political correctness vastly separate them both. Listen in the first act as coarse and racist things are stated with unapologetic definitiveness. Compare that to the overtly, overly apologetic tone of the second act, where—out of fear of being deemed insensitive—characters hardly utter complete sentences when discussing race and say things like, “half my friends are black.” Each scene feels honest and correct for the time.

In awarding Norris the Pulitzer Prize, the committee stated it was because of the play’s characters that “… speak in witty and perceptive ways to America’s sometimes toxic struggle with race and class consciousness.” While the dialogue never reaches the sophistication of other recent Pulitzer winners (specifically the somewhat similar August: Osage County by Tracy Letts) and not all characters are fully realized, this is a wonderful opportunity to see a outstanding production of the play before its April 19th Broadway opening.

Clybourne Park runs through March 25 at Arden Theatre.