Mark Taper's "Clybourne Park" Review: Contrasting Two Plays

The Good Ol Days

Center Theatre Group’s Artistic Director, Michael Ritchie, gives theater lovers a very special cultural experience when he brings two fascinating and interconnected plays to the stage concurrently in Los Angeles. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun at the Kirk Douglas is playing in tandem with Bruce NorrisClybourne Park at the Mark Taper Forum.

Georja: The two plays center around the same location and the same themes. Act I of Clybourne even takes place at the exact same time period as Hansberry’s piece. Both pieces are at the top of their form. Raisin is a classic from the '50s, an American treasure taught in schools and often performed in theaters. Norris’ play written in 2009 has garnered a Pulitzer prize for him as well as an Oliver award in London.

(L to R) Shamos and Parisse with Brendan Griffin as Rev. Jim

Gerald: Norris has said in interviews that the two plays he first studied in school were Raisin and Thorton Wilder's Our Town. He's was a white kid from the suburbs in Texas, and he's also said that he's interested in exposing the hypocritical side of progressive middle-class values.

Georja: One play, Raisin, comes from the heart. It focuses on the lives and interrelationships of a struggling black family in Southside Chicago in the 1950s. Life is hard, but their emotional lives are rich and well played out. They stand in sharp contrast to the villain, Mr. Karl Linder, who comes into their lives as a representative of the prejudices, both hidden and overt, that they must deal with. Through their squabbles and conflicts, the characters remain loveable, and we are rooting for them and feel satisfied at their victories.

Bev (Kirk) tells Francine (Dickinson) what to do

Gerald: Yes, I'd agree Raisin is the more emotional experience. As I pointed out in our review of its production at the Douglas, it is old-school Clifford Odets-style razor-sharp verbal mayhem. But, as Georja says, its characters are sympathetic, even when they are doing things we think are misguided or even cruel. Hansberry deeply loves her characters, with all their flaws. That's clear.

Georja: The other play, Clybourne, looks at where the prejudice is coming from and sharply and provokingly displays the principles and foibles of the white people and their black servants on the other end of the transaction. Here we see cranky, unkind and rude behavior with no balancing of sweetness. We see what the issues are for the white man, and it isn’t pretty.  In Act II Clybourne skips ahead 50 years with a similar discussion among the characters. A joke told by the black man in the scene seems to personify Mr. Norris’ attitude: How many white men does it take to screw in a light bulb? All of them: one to screw in the bulb and the rest to screw the world.

Christina Kirk as Bev and Frank Wood as Russ, parents of the unhappy Kenneth

Gerald: Clybourne Park is intensely dramatic, darkly humorous and thought-provoking. But in comparison to Hansberry's work, for all its emotion, it is intellectual. Norris seems deeply cynical about all his characters. They are superbly drawn, and acted with marvelous dexterity here, but ultimately we really don't care much about them personally. He almost seems to be saying they deserve everything they get.

Georja: Norris’ wit is biting and pointed. In the program notes, it states that he enjoys being provocative, and making people laugh and squirm at the same time. He does, and his arguments make the audience think about racism and all forms of prejudice really. It is a historical story of the struggle of African-Americans, but much of the rhetoric could easily apply to other minorities, and to the LGBT community.

Ensemble in Act II, with Frank Wood as workman Dan and Annie Parisse as yuppie Lindsey

Gerald: Audience members seeing both productions, and particularly the students of drama, will note the differences in dramatic style. In Norris' work, there are more meaningful pauses, more unfinished sentences, more subtext. In fact, the opening of Act II is almost all hypocritical chit-chat. The reasons the characters have met in this place can be found nowhere in the dialogue. It isn't until later that the masks come off and they throw direct accusations at each other. That approach is very modernist. More like, say, Gods of Carnage.

Wood (Dan) with Shamos as yuppie Steve

Georja: Through his genius, Norris makes us think about hidden agendas and unspoken feelings we might have and never discuss. His work brings it all out in the open, showing that even today acts of discrimination do not arise from different inner feelings, although they are better covered up.

Gerald: It's really remarkable that the conclusion of Raisin is essentially hopeful. Hansberry's own family actually experienced much worse treatment over a similar incident in Chicago, involving serious violence and threats. But somehow Hansberry looks forward with hope. Norris doesn't, at all. He shows us what actually happened. Property values did go down over the decades, and the white majority left the neighborhood. Then, as the real estate marketplace changed again, "gentrification" set in and the whites started to retaike the homes they'd given up. He is not optimistic at all. It's just the way things go, he seems to say.

Georja: As with Raisin (please see our review) Clybourne is an excellent production in every way. The actors are top notch, and I especially remarked on the way the acting and directing, which clearly portrayed a '50s flavor in Act I and a modern one in Act II. Even the actors’ speech cadences were different and spot on. Special note must go to the work of Christina Kirk who even modulated her voice tones. Kudos to director Pam MacKinnon for working with the actors on such fine detail. The ensemble did not miss a beat and worked magnificently together.

Gupton as Kevin and Dickinson as Lena in Act II, 2009

Gerald: The Norris piece is particularly challenging for actors because everyone is tasked with playing dual roles, as one set of characters in 1959 in Act I and another set in 2009 in Act II. Kirk plays a '50s housewife and mother, and then a sharp real-estate lawyer. Crystal A. Dickinson is a maid and then an upscale neighborhood activist. Damon Gupton plays her husband in both acts, appearing the second time as a young urban professional who routinely vacations in Europe. Jeremy Shamos plays the head of the neighborhood owners' association in Act I (the one character carried over from Raisin) and then the yuppie home buyer in Act II. Annie Parisse plays his wife in both acts, and both time pregnant, first as a deaf person and secondly as an oh-so-P.C. aristo. Frank Wood plays Kirk's despondent husband in Act I and a workman in Act II. And Brendan Griffin gets the hat-trick award for playing three characters - clergyman, activist attorney, and young returning war vet.

Georja:  I would have to say that in many ways, A Raisin in the Sun was a more emotionally satisfying theater experience, I would have to say Clybourne Park was definitely the more mentally stimulating of the two. In any case, it is a fascinating comparison to see both and a perfect pair of performances that L.A. theater lovers should not miss.

Photos by Craig Schwartz

Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate. Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hempill series of comic novels.

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris

January 11 - February 26, 2012


Los Angeles Music Center (downtown)

Grand and Fourth Streets

- You'll also want to see -

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

January 19 - February 19, 2012


9820 Washington Bl.

Culver City, CA 90232

(213) 628 2772 (Audience Services)

In-person sales are available at CTG Music Center downtown, as well as at the box office 2 hours prior to performances.

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