Stake your Territory in Clybourne Park

I would like to begin my thoughts on Live Arts production of “Clybourne Park“, awarded the  2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play by Bruce Norris, with  the chorus of a song from “Avenue Q”:

Everyone’s a little bit racistSometimes.

Doesn’t mean we goAround committing hate crimes.

Look around and you will find

No one’s really color blind.

Maybe it’s a fact

We all should face

Everyone makes judgments

Based on race.

Yes, everyone is a just a bit racist and even though we may do our best to hide that fact (or perhaps we are a unaware), at times our ignorance and fear surface despite our best efforts.  Norris creates a sociological study in “Clybourne Park” of how in two very different eras we are basically just as racist, we simply express it differently.

The play is a follow up story to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1960Tony nominated play, “A Raisin in The Sun“, a piece that attempts to give background story to a real life lawsuit (Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940)) in which the  playwright’s family battled a white neighborhood association to keep their home.  The story takes place at 406 Clybourne Park,  an Arts & Crafts style home in a neighborhood in northwest Chicago much like Washington Park where Hansberry’s family lived.  The first Act unfolds in 1959 when Russ (Ray Nedzel) and Bev (Barbara Roberts) are packing up their belongings to move two years after the suicide of their only son, a veteran of the Korean War. Various characters enter the space and become caught in an uncomfortable conversation when the head of the all white neighborhood association reveals that the new owners of the house are black. Act II, is the story fast forwarded to 2009 when a descendant of the purchasers is selling the  now dilapidated house  to a gentrifying yuppy white couple. Norris shows us through his characters that battles of all kinds (mental, physical, psychological) are fought over territory – who is allowed where, when, and how.

Norris’ script is so densely rich with meaning, innuendo, social observation and humor that honestly, I forgot to notice many production elements (except the spectacular set designed by Jeff Kmiec and expertly constructed by Geoff Otis and a staff of volunteers) until the second Act.  My first Act amnesia is, however, a testament to the high level of both Betsy Tucker’s directing and the acting ability of the cast.  Had there been major flaws in the execution of that delicate, mine -field of a  script, it would have stood out like finger nails scraped across a chalk board.  Instead, Nedzel and Roberts start out the play with excellence and it is carried through by the rest of the cast particularly, Chris Patrick who plays rather overtly racist Karl in the first Act and a rather closeted racist, Steve in the second. In fact all of the actors play dual roles, a device Norris plays with like a person who teases a cat with a string.  He uses stereotypes, timely social morays, repeated themes and lines sometimes from different characters and sometimes from their opposites between the acts that keeps the audience raptly engaged. Tucker is keen to pick up on the fun in this and blocks her actors to mimic the playwrights game, the actors expertly comply delivering lines and utilizing copy-cat physicality to emphasize those moments.

In fact, this group is so good that despite a most unusual moment about 15 minutes into the second Act, actress, Jenny Smith who plays Francine/Lena was called off the stage due to a family emergency and replaced by Assistant Stage Manager, Jovi Richards,(she was great, BTW) the cast soldiered on without missing a beat.  ( I plan to see the play again just to get the un-interrupted version.)

Richards was lucky though, she got to perform one of the best bits in the play in which Lena tells a joke to demonstrate the offensiveness and falseness of the PC veneer each character is polishing in their race/class discussion.  She tells this joke which sent the audience into absolute howls of relief/recognition laughter:

The Joke:

Q:Why is a white woman like a tampon?

A: Because they are both stuck up c – – ts.

(If you can’t figure out the punch line then you must go to the play.)

That joke alone, in the context of the play or not, is worth the Pulitzer in my book.

The two production elements that flawed the show for me where lighting (at least in the second Act when I made a conscious effort to notice) and a costume issue.  I noticed plenty of shadows on faces particularly upstage -which is annoying when watching an otherwise high caliber production.  In terms of costumes, Tricia Emlet does a bang- up job matching the costumes with the characters and eras. The glaring costume problem is: whatever she used to fake Betsy/Lindsey’s (Lena Malcolm) pregnancy.  Part of the issue was how Malcolm seemed to treat the large bulbous false tummy as a weightless balloon- very much unlike the reality of being in the late stages of child-bearing.( I suggest to Ms. Malcolm, a method acting technique of following a sleepless night, drinking about a gallon of green tea in an hour then strapping a  30 lbs weight very tightly to her belly so that it puts pressure on her bladder then taking a run up Carter Mountain without allowing herself to pee for at least two hours to get the idea.)

Other than those two things, I thought this show was FANTASTIC! and I highly recommend it. I talked to several people over the weekend who had seen the show and all of them said that it had spawned some really interesting conversations, especially the ending- which will remain undisclosed here but suffice it to say that the consensus is to love it or hate it. People either get a sense of closure and the joy of completing a running theme or they feel that it is too jarring and introduces an extraneous issue into the mix.  I urge you to laugh, cry and flinch through the show and make your own decision.

The Cast: Ray Nedzel, Barbara Roberts. Jenny Smith, Mark McLane, Brandon Lee, Chris Patrick, Lena Malcolm, Eamon Hyland, and for one night only, Jovi Richards

Note:  Melanin will be performing a staged reading of “A Raisin in The Sun” in Rehearsal A room on the 4th floor at Live Arts on October 13 at 8:00pm and on October 14 at 2:00pm all tickets are $10.00.

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