Playwright Bruce Norris has chosen not to fabricate the truth in order to invent a story. He offers no make believe worlds, no climactic battles of good and evil, no metaphorical calls to action, no romantic flickers of passion, no moments of inspiration, no heroes, no villains, no damsels, or vixens. Instead, the award-winning author of “Clybourne Park” has elected to present his audience with an unflattering reflection from a mirror. His play brings humanity face to face with its own imperfect image, and forces it to observe the ugly facts of life.
The descriptive marketing of “Clybourne Park” makes claims that it is a “provocative comedy about the intersection of race and real estate”, but even this broad and ambiguous sketch fails to harness the dense nature of the play’s content. Dense as it may be, the talented cast and directors of the Arizona Theater Company have elected to present Norris’ complicated production to Tucson’s Temple of Music and Art through April 27, before traveling northward for a three week stint in Phoenix’s Herberger Theater Center.
Clybourne’s first act takes place in a 1959 middle class suburb of Chicago, where tragedy stricken residents, Russ and Bev, are preparing for a much needed move. After a few slow minutes of hollow 1950’s banter, tensions grow as the couples living room becomes full of guests, many of whom are vociferous neighbors expressing concerns over the African-American family who will be moving into Russ and Bev’s home. Karl, the most vocal of protestors, pleads with Russ to reconsider leaving his home, even going as far as dragging the African-American maid, Francine, and her husband into the discussion in hopes of illustrating the polarizing differences between cultures. Russ, however, explains that he feels no loyalty to the Clybourne neighborhood, as they ostracized his son after returning from the Korean War, possibly contributing to his eventual suicide.
In the play’s second act, the audience finds themselves in the same living room set as the first, though now soiled and exhausted by time in the year 2009. A stringent role reversal surfaces as the first act’s cast members return in new form. Clybourne is now a predominantly African American neighborhood, and expecting Caucasian couple Steve and Lindsey are hoping to gentrify the historical home. However, they must first meet with African-American members of the neighborhood association, in an exchange that parallels that of the first act, and intensifies as racial relations are once again brought to the forefront.
“Clybourne Park” markets itself as a comedy, but this is a gross understatement. Comedy does not typically address such fragile, even painful subjects as racism. Norris crafts content that brilliantly enables the audience to laugh at the ugliness of their own societal shortcomings, and the ridiculousness of poor racial relations.
And Norris does not hold back any punches. Without exemption, each character is flawed, and each brings their own unpleasant representation of the social order. Be that as it may, “Clybourne Park” does not lecture the audience. Instead, the play promotes societal analysis, and encourages viewers to draw their own conclusions. It illustrates our misunderstandings, fears, miscommunications, and motives, enabling us to face the sting of racism. “Clybourne Park” is a brilliant observation of the tragedy of the human condition and the brokenness of culture. One that teaches viewers that, try as we might, these are problems that cannot be ignored, and will not go away should we choose to brush them aside.