The year is 1959, and Bev (Christina Kirk) and Russ (Frank Wood) are preparing to move into a new home and to start chapter of their lives. Well, Bev is actively planning and packing. Russ is eating ice cream. Their maid Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) is doing her best to ease out of the door for the weekend and avoid the palpable friction in the air –despite all Bev’s efforts to defuse it. She even invites Pastor Jim (Brendan Griffin) to come talk to Russ. Jim’s offerings of consolation are get with hostility from Russ. He is content in the grief over losing his son Kenneth.
Albert (Damon Gupton), Francine’s even-tempered husband arrives just in time to be drafted into moving an oversized trunk for Bev. Finally, Karl Lindner (Jeremy Shamos) from the Homeowners Association arrives with his deaf wife Betsy (Annie Parisse) in tow. Panicked, Karl explains that a Black family has bought Russ & Bev’s home and his efforts to dissuade the family from moving into the neighborhood had failed. Karl is looking at Russ to do something before life goes to hell in a hand basket for the people who remain.
Albert and Francine get pulled into a decadent and insensitive debate about the pros and cons of “like staying among like” and the mixing of the races. Meanwhile, Russ has his own axe to grind with his neighbors over the death of his son and is completely uninterested in Karl’s “dilemma”, race issue or not.
The thing you have to remember is, it’s all about race.
Even when we jump to 2009, back to the same home, same neighborhood, where relatives of the involved parties are negotiating the remodeling of the home in Clybourne Park. White liberals Lindsey (Parisse) and Steve (Shamos) sit in the rundown home with their lawyer Kathy (Kirk), community activists Lena (Dickinson) and Kevin (Gupton) and their lawyer Tom (Griffin).
The pleasantries are a plenty until the participants begin to let their hair down, share more about each other and about the history of the neighborhood and people they come from. Seemingly out of no way, racial tensions arise. While half of the group hold steadfast to their principled arguments, the others hedge their responses on political correctness. And all the while Handyman Dan (Wood) randomly interrupts with progress reports on the building and construction going on around the old house. Needless to say, things get heat. Now is it a question of whether Whites are welcome in what has become a predominately Black community.
Center Theatre Group has a great production on their hands with Clybourne Park. The cast across the board is solid, energetic, skilled and totally in sync – even across the two vastly differing generations depicted. The fact that Norris’ has the same actor playing characters from 1959 and 2009 is a astute commentary on the fact that the more we change, the more we stay the same. How we, as a nation, talk about race has changed. How we feel about it hasn’t.
The silver streamer that Bev insisted on giving to Francine and Albert was the perfect metaphor for how people of different races try to negotiate having treated each other badly. But one cannot simply assign a value to a thing and expect the wronged to value it the same. Real compromise and real grow always has a cost, personal, monetary, etc. There is not use offering an olive branch of you’ve already picked all the olives off. Norris’ play codifies the truth that is it nearly impossible for folk of different races to truly honestly discuss race, at least for any real length of time. Our history and our egos dictate that we assign blame or expect some assumption of responsibility. It will always be easier to forget the past than to keep it present and continue to learn from it – well, more easily for some than others.
Clybourne Park is January 25, 2012 through Feburary 26, 2012 at:
Mark Taper Forum
at the Music Center downtown Los Angeles
135 N. Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012
For Ticket Information call 213.972.4400
Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz