Sunday, April 22, 2012

THEATER: Clybourne Park

It's unprofessional of me, I know, but at a certain point in Clybourne Park, I stopped taking notes. I was just so enjoying Bruce Norris's overlapping dialogue -- lines that would be contentious if the characters bothered to acknowledge one another (they're not supposed to) -- that I allowed myself to get lost. Which winds up, of course, being the sucker-punching point, in that it's necessary to remove oneself from the language to realize just how tangled up we are in the prejudices of the past.

Act I, set in 1959, is an exercise in uncomfortable comedy, as Russ (Frank Wood) and Bev (Christina Kirk) are confronted by an overzealous Rotary Club member, Karl (a marvelous Jeremy Shamos), who is dead-set against the sale of their house to a black family. Inevitably, the family's black housekeeper, Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson), and her visiting husband, Albert (Damon Gupton) are dragged into the argument, as is the local priest, Jim (Brendan Griffin). Act II, set fifty years later, emphasizes how what we now easily recognize as racism, persists well into the modern day: it's just perhaps more tactfully tip-toed around, now. You see, now it's a white couple, Steve and his uncontrollably PC wife Lindsey (Shamos and Annie Parisse; every actor is double-cast) that is trying to buy this house, and it's a black couple, Lena and Kevin (Dickinson and Gupton), who are resistant, perturbed by the thought of rich, white interlopers changing the face of their community. It's a credit to the cast and crew, and director Pam MacKinnon, that the play manages to be so comically tense, and it's no surprise that one of the big moments involves an escalating series of offensive jokes: what are we really offended by, after all?

Stepping back from the indignation, the thoughtless disrespect, and the ever-present specter of racism, one sees the people who are really at the heart of these issues, how these two irreconcilably different households are actually one and the same, and how "community" is little more than an artificial construct: a fence that we choose to erect among those who are "like" us and those who are not. And her's the final lesson of Clybourne Park, literally buried within the show. Russ and Bev's son is dead -- this occurs before Act I -- but he returns in a flashback at the end of Act II. This boy, Kenneth, was once a beloved part of the community, but after going to war in Korea, something changed. And because we fear what we do not know, these former friends and families cast him aside, driving him to suicide. And what sort of a community is that?

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