Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Clybourne Park: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

You know something is happening when they extend a show before it even opens. Bruce Norris's "Clybourne Park," which is barely a year old but has been winning prizes everywhere it goes, opened last night at A.C.T. and delivers on every promise.

Though originally from Dallas, Texas, Norris is considered a "Chicago playwright." Clybourne Park is a neighborhood in Chicago -- not a real neighborhood, but the very one invented by Lorraine Hansberry in her epic 1957 drama "Raisin in the Sun." In "Raisin" we watch what happens when a black family wants to move into the white neighborhood of "Clybourne Park," and now Bruce Norris tells the story of the house itself, and what happens as time passes and demographics begin to change.

Act One takes place in 1959. Russ (Anthony Fusco) and Bev (René Augesen) are moving from their white neighborhood. Their living room is filled with packing boxes and memories (the nature of which become increasingly important). It turns out their house has been sold to a black family (the fictional "Raisin" family), which engenders an exceedingly uncomfortable half hour in which we must revisit a world we all hoped to leave far behind us.

You might practice squirming at home before you see Act One. If Richard Thieriot as Karl Lindner doesn't rattle your brain with his supercilious racial stereotyping, then you're just not old enough.

In Act Two the year is 2009 and the same house has been sold to a young white couple, Lindsey (Emily Kitchens) and Steve (Thierot), who want to tear it down and build a 'nicer one.' They are in conflict with Lena (Omozé Idehenre) and Kevin (Gregory Wallace), a black couple who, though obviously upper middle class themselves, have familial ties to both the neighborhood and the house itself.

And then there's the house's secret. But this secret, which unfolds as the play continues, is no more secret than the unspoken fears about race that no one can allow himself or herself to verbalize. In 1959, the neighbors are just plain oblivious, while in 2009 they ought to know better, but they don't. If there is blame it is shared: no one is willing to speak from the heart.

Until the jokes start. Well. Do you know why a white woman is like a tampon? Ask Lena. Do you know what is long and hard for a black man? Ask Steve. Once these scabrous and hysterical jokes start flying around the room, laughter can begin. And despite the surprisingly sad conclusion, the author leaves us with the sense that with laughter we can overcome a lot, especially when we step back and laugh at, and with, ourselves.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Clybourne Park" Four Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE for excellent writing. It's just a great play, one that surprises you, shocks you, makes you cringe and then pays it all off. Playwrights often throw all their best stuff into Act One and then fizzle out in Act Two. Norris sets the stage in Act One and then writes the book on how to construct an Act Two.

Along with Jeff Mockus's Sound Design (great song choices) we also want to recognize director Jonathan Moscone for perfect pacing. A ponderous Act One might be too much to bear. Moscone (and the cast) are just laying a foundation to build on in Act Two, like good plays and strong houses are supposed to do.

"Clybourne Park"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Extended through Feb. 20

Photos by Erik Tomasson

No comments: