Matthew Reddin

“Clybourne” a powerful play about more than race

The Rep's production of the "A Raisin in the Sun" companion piece features a strong cast and a stronger understanding of its complex themes.

By - Feb 2nd, 2013 03:25 pm

Racial tensions are implicit in both acts of “Clybourne Park,” but the play excels in linking them with other forms of discrimination and hate. Pictured from left: Grant Goodman, Greta Wohlrabe (back), Marti Gobel, James T. Alfred. All photos courtesy Michael Brosilow.

Where, where to begin with Clybourne Park?

Before you see it, you can describe the play easily. It’s a 2011 work by Bruce Norris inspired by the Lorraine Hansberry play A Raisin in the Sun. The first act takes place in the home the black Younger family has purchased, where the white couple moving out is assailed by neighbors seeking to bar the Youngers’ entry; the second looks at that same home 50 years later, now in a mostly black, redlined district, being sold to a young white couple who plan to tear it down. By default, then, it is a play about race relations, then and now, and how things have changed, or not changed.

After you see it…

It is most certainly still a play about race and racism. But racism as a symptom, not a cause. To Norris and the Milwaukee Rep cast, led by artistic director Mark Clements, it’s just one of the many, many problems stemming from a broader social disease: fear and rejection of the “other.”

In the first act of “Clybourne Park,” Karl (Gerard Neugent, front-right) sparks a conflict by asking Bev and Russ (Jenny McKnight and Lee E. Ernst, center-left) not to let the Younger family buy their home.

And there’s no shortage of “others” in Clybourne Park. The obvious ones are the offstage Youngers, who threaten Clybourne’s white homogeny in 1959 and Steve and Lindsey (Gerard Neugent and Greta Wohlrabe), the white couple who arrive in 2009. There’s also the departing family in 1959, Bev and Russ (Jenny McKnight and Lee E. Ernst), ostracized by their community after their son returns from the Korean War branded a child-killer. Their black maid, Francine (Marti Gobel), called a friend but ignored out of hand, and her husband Albert (James T. Alfred), who hardly registers at all to the white household. The pastor too untested to aid (Grant Goodman) in 1959 and the construction worker too low-class to be heard (Ernst) in 2009. The wives, one deaf as well and doubly marginalized. Swedes and Spaniards. The mentally disabled. Gays. Anyone not like “us.”

Of course, none of this explicitly said out loud, not even in the second act, where a lot of other explicit things are said out loud. (If you don’t want your evening sponsored by the letters “c” or “f,” you might want to sit this one out.) In the first act, the families’ Leave It to Beaver sensibilities keep much of their resentments from boiling over, alongside a naïveté that’s often uncomfortably laughable. Karl Lindner (Neugent), who Raisin-devotees will recognize as the minor character who tries to buy out the Youngers, goes so far as to say out loud that he’s never seen any black people skiing, so obviously black people don’t like skiing and would thus not fit in with the people of Clybourne Park.

“Clybourne’s” second act focuses on a conflict between Lena and Albert (Gobel and Alfred, front), longtime neighborhood residents, and Steve and Lindsey (Neugent and Greta Wohlrabe, back), who plan to tear down the former Younger house.

Hilarious, right? Until Neugent’s 2009 character Steve doesn’t see why a black joke might not be appropriate to tell to Lena and Kevin (Gobel and Alfred), the black couple he’s negotiating with over the house. It’s not so different from the 1959 scene, you see, except their pretense eventually segues into more violence and resentment later.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Clybourne, and the Rep’s production of it, is how well the second act pivots off the presumed moral superiority of the first. At intermission, we applaud the valiant performances of these seven actors, unfairly tasked with playing racists and naïve housewives and members of the poor black underclass.

But as we watch Steve and Lindsey make small talk with the white lawyers Kathy and Tom (McKnight and Goodman) while Lena tries to get a word in edgewise, we’re reminded that the pastor from Act I at least bothered to ask Francine and Albert’s opinion, however impossible it was for them to honestly debate. Watching Lena rail against wealthy, predominantly white homeowners moving in to gentrify the neighborhood brings a sickening chill as we recall Karl making a similar speech fifty years earlier, about white flight instead. Even when there isn’t a direct one-to-one correspondence between the doublecast actors and their characters, there’s enough of 1959 in all of them to unsettle any audience.

Much of Clybourne’s strength comes from the material itself, one of the most well-written plays I’ve ever seen staged, but a handful of moments from an already impressively strong cast stood out:

While Ernst’s second-act role doesn’t always operate as more than a comic distraction, he’s exquisite as the fatalistic, increasingly ingrown Russ, and his barely controlled rage is as captivating when it’s tamped down and when he finally lets it out.

Having to play both of the play’s white “antagonists,” for lack of a better word, is a tough task for Neugent, but he rises to the occasion, portraying both, Steve especially, as three-dimensional characters who are ignorant and self-absorbed, not deliberately malicious.

Perhaps this is something done in previous stagings and not unique to the Rep’s, but the decision to send out a collection of Rep interns as a 1959 moving crew and 2009 construction crew for a mini-play during the set change is patently brilliant. Skip the drink at intermission; it’s worth it.

And while Gobel and McKnight have so many marvelous moments in both acts, apart and together, my favorite came right at the end. In a coda that flashes back to a moment before the start of the play itself, Francine arrives at Bev’s house to work early, only to see Bev there on the steps talking to her son (J.R. Yancher). Their eyes meet, and there’s a sudden realization that there’s something wrong with the way their social positions work. Then, the moment’s passed, and they walk away from the chance to reach out to each other. It’s the whole play, in a second.

Clybourne Park runs through Feb. 24 at the Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Pavillion. Tickets range from $10 to $65 and can be purchased online or at (414) 224-9490.

While the characters of “Clybourne Park’s” second act may have less of the societal restraints their first-act counterparts are restrained by, they still lack the ability to acknowledge each others’ individual perspectives.

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