— The cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Clybourne Park. Photo by David Cooper.
More than once over the past few years an American play has arrived in Vancouver preceded by the hype that it had won the Tony Award for Best Play or the Pulitzer Prize, only to leave us shaking our collective heads, wondering what those juries were thinking.
The Arts Club’s season-opener, Clybourne Park, comes with both the 2011 Pulitzer and the 2012 Tony in hand. But this time there’s no wondering why. Intelligent, hilarious, and sometimes shocking, this play will have you talking about it long after you leave the theatre.
Chicago playwright Bruce Norris brilliantly explores the painful place where the American dream of home ownership smacks up against the American nightmare of race. Director Janet Wright has put together a fast-paced, well acted, and simply staged production that showcases the difficulties even decent, reasonable people have in untying that awful knot. The result is both excruciating and exhilarating.
Norris builds his play around Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 theatre classic, A Raisin in the Sun. That play ends with an African American family about to move out of the ghetto into a home they’ve bought in the all-white Chicago suburb of Clybourne Park, after rejecting an offer from a representative of the neighbourhood’s homeowners to buy the house back from them.
Bev and especially Russ are struggling with the suicide of their son after his return from Korea, where he had been accused of committing war crimes. Russ’s anger and despair, revealed in a terrific scene with Father Jim, further intensify the high-stakes arguments that ensue when Karl tells them that a “colored family” has bought their home.
Norris makes us squirm listening to the euphemisms and rationalizations for racism, Karl’s painfully funny cultural relativism (whites and blacks shouldn’t live together because Negroes don’t ski), and the unconscious condescension of those white characters who appear to be the most liberal.
As the whites talk loudly over and across one another, you can almost see the steam coming out of the ears of the mostly silent Lena and Albert. Brown’s deaf, pregnant Betsy, struggling to hear scraps of the conversation, takes acting honours among an array of strong performances, although Moloney’s Karl is too big and broad, pushing his character over into caricature.
Norris sets act two in the same house in an increasingly gentrified Clybourne Park in 2011, but how the tables have turned. Now, House and Herbert are representatives of the African American homeowners association, challenging the white couple (Moloney and Brown) who have purchased the house and are renovating it. Archibald and Williams play their lawyers and Wheeler a comic worker.
Any idea that we’re somehow beyond race today is quickly exploded as the characters’ awkward circumlocutions and attempts to be civil to one another descend into thinly veiled accusations of racism and reverse racism, then to a contest of gasp-inducing racist/sexist jokes. Director Wright simply lines up the actors across the stage and has them go at each other. And the performances here are scintillating.
We in Vancouver are no strangers to the volatile chemistry of race and real estate. Clybourne Park reminds us how foolishly they can make us act and how much pain they can make us feel.