Monday, January 10, 2011

Theater feature: 'Clybourne Park' playwright wants to get under your skin

Gregg Weiner,‭ ‬Karen Stephens and Brian D. Coats
in Clybourne Park.

By Hap Erstein

Playwright Bruce Norris has no use for writing scripts that do not provoke audiences.‭ ‬Typical of his work,‭ ‬if there is such a thing,‭ ‬is‭ ‬Clybourne Park,‭ ‬which looks at race relations in this country and suggests that communities change faster than our racial attitudes.

‭“‬Well,‭ ‬we’ve obviously made some very important political strides and obviously some very important things have changed.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬I think those things are sort of superficial,‭” ‬Norris says.‭ “‬It’s kind of like spackling.‭ ‬We’ve covered up a lot of holes,‭ ‬but I’m not sure we’ve changed our human nature.‭ ‬And I think our human nature is to hate everyone according to whatever we can hate them for at any given moment.‭”

To further rile theatergoers,‭ ‬Norris has chosen as the basis for Clybourne Park that sacred cow of the civil rights movement,‭ ‬Lorraine Hansberry’s‭ ‬1959‭ ‬A Raisin in the Sun,‭ ‬turning it inside out for satire’s sake.‭ “‬It’s such an iconic play about a period in history and I thought,‭ ‘‬Therefore,‭ ‬it’s ripe for a kind of iconic update.‭’ ‬Or a revisitation from the other point of view.‭”

Hansberry wrote about the African-American Younger family,‭ ‬which tried to cement its tenuous hold on a piece of the American Dream by moving into an all-white neighborhood in Chicago.‭ ‬Not surprisingly for the late‭ ‘‬50s,‭ ‬they met with considerable resistance.

Having grown up in an all-white neighborhood in Houston,‭ ‬Texas,‭ ‬Norris quickly recognized himself in‭ ‬A Raisin in the Sun‭ ‬--‭ ‬as the villain of the piece.‭ “‬Even from an early age I sort of thought to myself,‭ ‘‬Gosh,‭ ‬that’s me.‭ ‬I’m the antagonist in the play,‭’‬” he says.‭ “‬I grew up in an anti-integration neighborhood and school district.‭ ‬That’s always been my people,‭ ‬so I have to be honest about how I approach the conversation about race.‭ ‬I approach it from that very wrong-headed background.‭”

Instead of showing the Youngers,‭ ‬Norris takes us inside the home in question,‭ ‬to portray the previously unseen couple that is intent on selling the property to them.‭ ‬Then,‭ ‬in the second act,‭ ‬the play jumps forward‭ ‬50‭ ‬years.‭ ‬Now the neighborhood is predominantly black and a white couple is trying to buy its way onto the block,‭ ‬to tear down the house and build a McMansion far larger than the homes around it.

What begins civilly soon breaks down along racial lines,‭ ‬with tensions further ignited by the telling of some overtly offensive racial jokes.

Norris concedes he is out to make audiences uncomfortable.‭ “‬Sure,‭ ‬and hopefully in a way that makes them laugh,‭ ‬too.‭ ‬The perfect combination of responses for me is when people laugh and it’s followed by a groan,‭” ‬he says.

Analyzing the response to the play’s politically incorrect humor,‭ ‬Norris says,‭ “‬Well,‭ ‬part of what they’re laughing at is that they have laughed.‭ ‬It’s the fact of sitting in a theater with a bunch of other people,‭ ‬some of whom are not the same race as you,‭ ‬and hearing these things and having to wonder,‭ ‘‬Am I permitted to respond to this‭? ‬And if I do respond,‭ ‬what has that said about me‭?’ ”

Patti Gardner and Kenneth Kay in Clybourne Park.

The‭ ‬50-year time shift and the leap to an entirely different cast of characters is a tricky thing to pull off,‭ ‬as Florida Stage learned this fall with‭ ‬Cane.‭ ‬Norris seems unconcerned by the challenge.

‭“‬Listen,‭ ‬I think an audience is much better served by remaining in the dark for as long as they can possibly stand it,‭ ‬because then you have something called suspense,‭ ‬where they’re trying to figure out what’s going on,‭ ‬instead of being told in the first three minutes of the act so they can nod off and go to sleep.‭”

There are parallels between the two acts,‭ ‬but Norris suggests that audience members not worry about them.‭ “‬They’re essentially two separate plays that have little sinews that connect the two of them,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬But they’re separate groups of people and hopefully your enjoyment of the second act is not dependent on trying to draw those connections.‭”

Clybourne Park landed on the‭ ‬10‭ ‬best lists of‭ ‬2010‭ ‬of‭ ‬The New York Times and‭ ‬Entertainment Weekly,‭ ‬as well as winning the Evening Standard Award for best new play in London this season.‭ ‬It may become quite popular among adventuresome regional theaters,‭ ‬but when the Caldwell Theatre’s artistic director Clive Cholerton asked Norris for the performance rights to‭ ‬Clybourne Park,‭ ‬it was a no-brainer for Norris to agree.

‭ “‬At first it looked like no one was going to do the play,‭ ‬so when he asked for them,‭ ‬he was the first of two,‭” ‬Norris says.‭ “‬He was a pioneer in that way.‭”

Norris is often surprised when his plays are well-received,‭ ‬but less so that the British took to‭ ‬Clybourne Park.‭

“I think the Brits are very ready to laugh at any depiction of Americans as failed buffoons.‭ ‬They love that,‭ ‬but y’know,‭ ‬it was a big success in D.C.‭ ‬as well.‭ ‬It’s just that in London,‭ ‬no one cared if Americans were depicted badly.‭”

CLYBOURNE PARK,‭ ‬Caldwell Theatre Co.,‭ ‬7901‭ ‬N.‭ ‬Federal Highway,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Continuing through Sunday,‭ ‬Feb.‭ ‬6.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$27-$75.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬241-7432‭ ‬or‭ (‬877‭) ‬245-7432.‭

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