Clybourne Park Broadway Review
The most breathtaking of the ironies connected to “Clybourne Park” is not one playwright Bruce Norris presents in the comedy itself, which is a clever update of “A Raisin in the Sun,” the classic drama about a black family moving into a white neighborhood. “Clybourne Park,” which has now opened on Broadway, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year. The drama on which it is based never did.
“A Raisin in the Sun” is widely considered one of the most important American plays ever produced. When it opened at the Ethel Barrymore in 1959, with a cast that included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Louis Gossett, it marked the Broadway debut of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, then just 28 years old, who would live only six more years, dying of cancer at 34. She based the play on the personal experience of her family; when they moved into a white neighborhood, she recalled in To Be Young, Gifted and Black, “literally howling mobs surrounded our house.” Her father poured his money into a legal case against housing discrimination that made its way all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Hansberry was the first black woman playwright to be represented on the Great White Way. “Never before in the entire history of the American theater,” James Baldwin wrote, “has so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage.”
Bruce Norris was born a year after the play’s debut. In a recent interview, he recalled being assigned it in junior high school and loving it, but identifying with the lone white character in it. That character, Karl Lindner, is the only one actually portrayed on stage in both plays.
When I reviewed Norris’s “Clybourne Park” during its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons two years ago, I said that it was audacious for the play to take up where “Raisin” left off, first in the immediate aftermath of the house’s purchase and then 50 years later. I called the play entertaining and thought-provoking, and compared it favorably to then-current plays with similar themes or structures.
That same production has now opened at the Walter Kerr, marking Bruce Norris’s Broadway debut as a playwright. Much has happened in the past two years to bring it to the larger stage, and it holds up fine. On the whole well-acted, and wonderfully directed by Pam MacKinnon making her own Broadway debut, “Clybourne Park” has provocative things to say about race relations, about community, about our failures at communication, about whether generational change is real change. It says them with humor and with insight. There are also some moving moments, and eerie moments that can pass for moving. The play is without question worth seeing, the reward of doing so the satisfaction not only of crackling theater but of keeping up with what’s happening in the culture.
But will “Clybourne Park” endure the way “A Raisin in the Sun” has? Will it stir people 50 years from now? Norris’s play lacks Hansberry’s heart or optimism, and it seems unwilling to let the characters fully live their own lives; they seem to exist primarily to be skewered or to embody arguments. The accolades “Clybourne Park” has received (a production of it in London also resulted in its winning the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play) may say more about our era than the play itself does.
Near the end of “A Raisin In The Sun,” Walter Lee Younger agrees to meet with Karl Lindner, the member of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association who has offered the family cash to stay out of the neighborhood (a fictional one in the Chicago metropolitan area.) Lindner – and the audience – thinks that Younger, who we know is in desperate shape financially, has contacted him because he is going to give up and give in.
“We are very plain people,” he says. “My father, well, my father was a laborer most of his life….”
“Yes, yes, I understand,” Lindner says, not understanding at all.
“…And we are very proud….And we have decided to move into our house because my father—my father—he earned it for us brick by brick.”
It is a speech (which is longer than I’ve presented here) that frequently leaves audiences in tears.
In “Clybourne Park,” Lindner has just left the Younger house, and driven straight to the house the Youngers have just purchased in Clybourne Park, trying to convince the old owners, a middle-aged couple named Bev and Russ who are in the process of packing up and moving out, to change their minds.
“Now, some would say that change is inevitable,” Lindner says when he finally gets around to the purpose of his visit. “And I can support that if it’s change for the better. But I’ll tell you what I can’t support, and that’s disregarding the needs of the people who live in a community.”
Bev: Don’t they have needs too?
Karl: Don’t who?
Bev: The family.
Karl: Which family?
Bev: The ones who
Karl: The purchasers?
Bev: I mean, in, in, in, in principle, don’t we all deserve to -
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