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Race/Class Examination Play "Clybourne Park" Wins Pulitzer Prize For Drama; Here's Our Review

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act April 21, 2011 at 4:57AM

Announced 3 days ago, Bruce Norris' play titled, Clybourne Park, which examines race relations in the 1950s as well as in modern-day Chicago, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
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Announced 3 days ago, Bruce Norris' play titled, Clybourne Park, which examines race relations in the 1950s as well as in modern-day Chicago, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

It only just occurred to me that the much-lauded play on race and class struggles in the USA, which is, ironically only playing in London, at the West End's Wyndham’s Theater, was see by our own MsWOO earlier this year, and she reviewed soon afterward.

So, I'm re-posting her thoughts on the production here, in light of its just-announced Pulitzer win, and for those who may not have seen it the first time.

I'd expect that the play will eventually make its way west; and, who knows, in this adaptation-heavy climate, the play could become a film.

In the meantime, read MsWOO's review below:

If you’ve ever seen Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin In The Sun, or watched the 1961 film adaptation starring Sidney Poitier, and wondered what made the unseen white family sell their home, in a nice all-white neighbourhood, to a black family in late 1950s America, then you may want to consider seeing Clybourne Park, a 2010 play written by playwright Bruce Norris and directed by Dominic Cooke.

Clybourne Park, you may or may not recall/know, is the name of the neighbourhood in Hansberry’s play to which the black family, the Youngers, move from their cramped tenement rooms in search of a brighter future and better standard of living. You do not have to have seen A Raisin In The Sun to watch and/or appreciate Norris’ play but, if you have, midway through the first act, you’ll sense a vaguely familiar feeling when one character, Karl Lindner (Stephen Campbell Moore), appears with the exact same complaint that Karl Lindner had in Hansberry’s play, seeking answers to the query I opened here with. Yes, it’s the very same character, the only white character in A Raisin In The Sun, who appears now, in the home of Russ (Stuart McQuarrie) and Bev (Sophie Thompson), a middle aged, middle class white couple, having just come, Lindner informs us, from the home of the black, working class Younger family. We learn nothing new of Lindner from what we know of him in A Raisin In The Sun, other than the propensity to leave his pregnant wife, Betsy (Sarah Goldberg) in the car when attending to potentially unsavoury business, as when visiting the Younger family earlier.

Norris is quoted in the program of the 2011 London production of Clybourne Park as saying: ‘My play is a continuation of a conversation that began 50 years ago and is far from being resolved.’

Sure enough, as if to highlight this fact, Clybourne Park left me feeling a little impatient and frustrated, both in its slowness to find its pace and in its lack of resolution. With the first act set in 1959, it’s hard to believe that the civil rights movement has begun and that the next decade will see a major change in race relations and integration. It’s moving day in Russ and Bev’s home. In typical 1950s civil society style, everyone speaks in a jokey ‘gosh darn it’ manner, belying their genuine feelings and intentions. Even the two black characters in the first act, Russ and Bev’s maid, Francine (Lorna Brown), and her husband, Albert (Lucian Msamati), speak in a very earnest and overly polite manner that vaguely veils their contempt for the white society they must tolerate in order to earn a living. But banal banter, at least among the white characters, soon gives way to unflinchingly unfurled feelings and vicious contempt all round, a viciousness that even the well meaning vicar (Sam Spruell) doesn’t escape.

So what’s the cause of the house sale? Well, let’s just say that, like the Younger family to which they are selling their home (who we do not see or learn anything about in the play other than their ethnicity), Russ and Bev have a son who cannot quite keep it together. He has done everything expected, even demanded, of a young man of his class and race and yet his actions/reactions bring about a stain on his character and an unspoken shame on his family, a shame which they find hard to bare, especially given the very ‘gosh-darn-it-ness’ that thinly veils the disdain of their neighbours. Nonetheless, regardless of the transgressions of their son, they are much more preferable to a black family. Despite Lindner’s best efforts, however, it seems that Clybourne Park is set to enter the civil rights era after all.

Skip the civil rights and fast forward to 2009. Integration, white flight, urban degeneration, gentrification… Oh, and political correctness turned on its head! With different characters but the same actors, unlike the first act, the pace here is pretty fast, reflecting the changing times, no doubt but, true to Norris’ words, very little is achieved or resolved by way of race relations, nor the matter at hand. They may all be equal in terms of income, lifestyle and opportunity, but the white characters (who very much mirror their counterparts in act I) are still as charmingly condescending and the black characters (who also mirror their act I counterparts) still use exaggerated politeness to cover their thinly veiled contempt of the white people they have to deal with. The banter which turns to viciousness in the second act culminates with an exchange of jokes, each joke funnier (in the right company) and more offensive than the previous. The most offensive is reserved for the uptight black woman who is indignant at the prospect of Clybourne Park’s recent (black) history being eroded. Her ‘how d’you like them apples?’ assertion that it was just a joke also just happened to get the biggest laugh from me – no mean feat, given that the play won the London Evening Standard’s Funniest Play award during its run at the Royal Court Theatre last year.

But, make no mistake, this is no comedy. A comedy of manners, perhaps – an observation on society, then and now, that will make audiences laugh with discomfort or embarrassment rather than with genuine mirth, as they recognise the trite yet often insidious mannerisms they may have often witnessed and overlooked or performed themselves.

The performances were exemplary, the cast sublime. However, as I said earlier, the play gave rise to feelings of impatience and frustration. On reflection, however, I’m not sure my reaction was so much a ‘so what?’ as a ‘what now?’ to the question of race relations, an answer which, as Norris himself implies, is still in the making. The moral of the somewhat unresolved story, if there was one, seems to be that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Following its success at the much smaller Royal Court Theatre last year, Clybourne Park has moved to London’s West End and will play at the Wynhdam’s Theatre until 7th May. Check the Wyndham’s Theatre website for details.

In the meantime, here’s a trailer to give you a preview of what to expect.

This article is related to: Theater


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