Broadway’s Best: America’s Melting Pot Boils Over in Pulitzer, Tony Winner Clybourne Park
Bruce Norris’ audaciously biting and oft-decorated ( 2011 Pulitzer, 2012 Tony winner) satire “Clybourne Park” was inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 groundbreaking drama”A Raisin in the Sun,” and it picks up where Hansberry left off. In ‘Raisin‘, we meet the Youngers, the black family that decided to move from a South Side Chicago neighborhood to the all-white fictional neighborhood of Clybourne Park. In the new “Clybourne Park,” we meet Russ and Bev Stoller, the white homeowners who decided to sell their house. In Act I it’s still 1959, and Karl Linder ( the only character who appears in both plays) the head of the Neighborhood Association, wants to stop the sale because he’s discovered the buyers are black. He drops by the Stollers hoping some friendly arm-twisting will change their minds and put a kibosh on the dreaded sale.
“A Raisin in the Sun, ” which ironically never won the Pulitzer ( that honor went to “J.B.” a modern retelling of the biblical Job story by Archibald MacLeish), remains one of the most enduring and produced American masterpieces. Despite the accolades “Clybourne Park” is not a masterpiece, It is, however,a sharply written, culturally provocative– and in this Broadway production– deftly directed ( by Pam MacKinnon) and beautifully acted (by a stellar ensemble cast) theatrical experience.
The tone, which sharply changes from Act I to Act II, is off-putting at first. Act I opens with a mawkish cartoon exchange, and the whole act plays a bit like a cross between the movie “Pleasantville” and an episode of “All in the Family.” All very deliberate, I’m sure. The nervous, happy 1950′s chatter conceals the deeper wounds of a family crushed by the sins and sorrows of their now dead soldier son and a community’s angst and prejudice. It takes some getting used to, and you may not fully understand its weight and effectiveness until watching the entire play, and absorbing its cultural impact.
Act II sets a very contemporary savagely funny tone as we find ourselves fifty years later, in 2009, observing another heated exchange in the same Clybourne park living room. Now a black couple, representing the neighborhood association, has concerns that the white couple who just bought the now dilapidated house will tear it down and build an urban equivalent of the McMansion eyesore and threaten the district’s historic charm.
Along the way the audience is treated to a barrage of razor-sharp commentary on race, sexism, gentrification and the notion of community. What we rarely get is a truly personal story. There are smatterings of real anguish in the Stollers’ story, but the full measure of what happened to their troubled son and its devastating impact is left to the imagination. And there is nothing that even comes close to a personal saga playing out in Act II, where the remarks are as glib as they are charged.
The last line, offered as part of a short and startlingly moving scene from 1959, uttered by Bev Stoller about “better things” coming resonates on both the broader cultural level and the more poignant personal one. Things don’t get better for the Stoller family. And it’s dubious just how much better they’ve gotten for the rest us in the ensuing fifty years. We get the message. Loud and clear. But just imagine how much more significant it would feel if we knew the Stolllers with the same depth and affection with which we got to know the Youngers.
Personal stories always have the most lasting impact. That’s why “A Raisin in the Sun” remains an enduring classic. A trip to “Clybourne Park” will make you think, it will most certainly stir up a melange of visceral emotions, and while some of those may even boil over, I doubt any will still linger in fifty years.
“Clybourne Park” now playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th Street, NYC, through Sept. 2. Call (212) 239-6200 Outside NY metro area: 800-432-7250.
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