And the Audience Laughed at Lester Maddox Too

The first act of Clybourne Park is the other side of A Raisin in the Sun: in 1959, Russ (Frank Wood) and Bev (Christina Kirk), a weary, middle-aged couple, have decided to move out of their neighborhood; their son, Kenneth, was a Korean vet who ended up committing suicide after being accused of war crimes.  The community panics, however, when they find out that a Black couple has bought the home.  Karl (Jeremy Shamos) shows up with his deaf wife Betsy (Annie Parisse) to try to convince them to stay, while their priest Jim (Brendan Griffin) awkwardly employs the help of their Black maid Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband Albert (Damon Gupton) to discuss the situation.

After the intermission, playwright Bruce Norris flashes fifty years forward, using the same cast to perform as new characters.  Steve (Mr. Shamos) and Lindsey (Ms. Parisse) are now tearing the old house down to build their suburban paradise after the neighborhood has gone from the “idyllic” ‘fifties community to a run-down ghetto and is now riding the upward economic thrust of gentrification.  A group of locals have gathered to discuss their plans, with Lena (Ms. Dickinson) particularly upset that an important moment in American history is being squashed by the new influx of white homeowners.

White authors do not have a terrific history of writing about race, from the self-congratulatory liberalism of William Rose’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to the smug ignorance of Paul Haggis’ Crash­, a movie that awards impunity to privileged white Americans by pointing out that everybody is racist.  Clybourne Park, then, comes as a wonderful surprise: it manages to address a wide range of race issues without ever resorting to lionizing or demonizing either side.  Mr. Norris also draws unexpected parallels—for example, Karl’s complaint about “changing” the neighborhood in Act One is the same one made by Lena in Act Two—and still wisely refuses to offer either judgment or pat answers.

Furthermore, Clybourne Park takes our generation to task for the progress we think we’ve made.  In the ‘fifties, Karl defends his anti-interracialism by pointing out that Black and white people have different “foods” and “customs.”  Bev, well-meaning but oblivious, cries out in frustration, “Maybe we should learn what the other person eats!”  We laugh at her simplicity, but the author points the mirror at us with Lindsey, who not only regurgitates clichés like, “Half of my friends are Black,” and “I used to date a Black guy,” but who resists every chance she has to genuinely discuss Black-white relations; like most of us, she laughs at race jokes and likely discusses racism among other white people, but would prefer to dodge any discussion of it in mixed company.  Fear of offending has silenced her, as it has many of us.  All the Obama t-shirts and sociological essays in the world are worthless if we can still only talk to each other in thinly veiled euphemisms.

It should also be mentioned that Clybourne Park is a hysterical play.  Mr. Shamos, in particular, plays Karl with supreme comic talent; Mr. Norris gives him some terrific lines, like when he responds to Bev’s offer of iced tea with, “Problem being that I do have some sensitivity to the cold beverages,” or when, moments later, he tiptoes around discussing the new Black neighbors by assaulting Russ with an endless amount of pretext ending with, “I will proceed directly to, dare I say, the crux.”  Later, he earns more sympathy as Steve, the only one bold enough to admit—albeit in a sotto voice—that The Issue That Dare Not Speak Its Name is race, this time earning laughs of recognition.  Ms. Kirk, too, is profoundly moving as Bev, the poor housewife whose stoic husband leaves her alone in her misery.  She walks around the stage fluttering her arms and squeaking out pleasantries with a fragile gaiety, Kenneth always on the tip of her tongue.

And what about Kenneth, the suicidal son whose ghost haunts the house for fifty years?  As the perpetrator of a proto-My Lai, he provides Clybourne Park and its audience with Mr. Norris’ darkest, rawest take on race relations.

Clybourne Park runs through September 2nd at the Walter Kerr Theatre.  219 W. 48th Street  New York, NY.

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Aaron Botwick

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