It won a 2012 Tony Award for Best Play. It won the Pulitzer Prize as well the year before for drama. Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, running through October 26 at Aurora Theatre, deals with issues of race like few works around. It’s not always pleasant to watch, but it’s certainly a production that is hard to shake.
Clybourne Park takes place in the same location, 50 years apart. It opens in 1959 as Bev (Tess Malis Kincaid) and Russ Stoller (Robin Bloodworth) are getting ready to sell their home in the Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park. The two have lost their son and are still in grieving mode, especially Russ. As they pack up boxes, local clergyman Jim (Bobby Labartino) visits as does neighbor Karl (Joe Sykes) with his pregnant and deaf wife Betsy (Cara Mantella). Around the same time, Albert (Eric Little) is picking up his wife, the family maid Francine (Danielle Deadwyler). As fate would have it, they all wind up in the Stoller living room at the same time. After Karl expresses surprise Russ and Bev are selling to an African American family, the afternoon comes to a boil.
Act II brings back the same actors 50 years later at a meeting to discuss the future of the area. It has become an all-black neighborhood but gentrification has started to happen. Mantella and Sykes are Lindsey and Steve, a young, idealistic couple wanting to relocate there while Deadwyler and Little are Lena and Kevin, a couple who have reasons to want to leave the area alone. (As for the rest of the actors, Bloodworth is a handyman, Kincaid a lawyer and Labartino a homeowners association rep). The characters all seem disconnected, taking calls and talking endlessly until Lena has to literally put her foot down and start the meeting.
The set by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay is wonderful, almost a character itself. These two pluck us into a typical living room of the era and then shift to the graffiti-littered second act shell of what it looks like now.
The play has lots of dark humor and other moments that are politically incorrect. As directed by the reliable Melissa Foulger, the play does a fine job of observing racial strife and looking at different sides, with the tension in the room growing with every sentence. Both acts start off fairly calm until the moment comes when a character says something that can’t be taken back. Yet the first act is much more solid here. It also has the deeper performances, chief among them Kincaid and Bloodworth as Bev and Russ. Bloodworth’s Russ is a man dying inside, while Kincaid is the old-fashioned, people pleaser wife just wanting everyone to be happy. The other stand-out here is Deadwyler, who creates an observant and wise Francine. Her comic timing is impeccable, including a great moment when she makes it clear to Bev she wants to get out as soon as possible.
Foulger has a terrific ensemble on tap, but there is no denying that some of the performances here are off in Act I. Both Sykes and Labartino come across as stereotypical and unbelievable. Sykes has become one of the more underrated performers around, but the play would singe more if his Karl was less outrageous.
The second act isn’t as tight as the first, with less structure and drama and characters that don’t go down easily. It does, however, build to another series of confrontations between the group gathered together and some revelations as to what these people had in common with their predecessors.
Norris has written this work, he claims, in response to the classic A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, with his action taking place before and after the activity in Hansberry’s play. It’s certainly a modern companion piece to that classic that works as drama and satire. One moment there’s a ferocious one-liner and the next — boom! — Karl throws in a below-the-belt statement. (The character of Karl, incidentally, is the only indirect crossover from Sun.) Yet comparisons to Sun beyond that pale a bit. Clybourne is timely alright — Norris’ play addresses overt racism and not-so-overt racism — but he doesn’t have much profound to say. Perhaps that is his point — that there is no resolution. But for all its pedigree and awards, it’s a play that falls just short of being a great work.
Nonetheless, kudos to Aurora for bringing Clybourne Park to town. It’s definitely a play that will have people wanting to talk and debate afterward.