When I first read that “Clybourne Park” deals with race, I expected the play to be heavy, or polemical.
It’s not, though it is certainly thought-provoking. Playwright Bruce Norris’ characters’ deep uneasiness and their struggles with political correctness—which will make you squirm in your seat—are relieved with inappropriate jokes and foul language, and the audience’s raucous laughter in response.
Stellar performances by all seven cast members, each playing at least two different characters under the direction of Steppenwolf ensemble member Amy Morton, keeps the audience rapt in the dramas that unfold inside a modest bungalow on Chicago’s Northwest Side, over the course of half a century.
The play’s two acts take place 50 years apart—in 1959 and 2009. In the first act, Russ (John Judd) and Bev (Kristen Fitzgerald) are moving out of the house and selling it at a reduced price because of a tragic event, which has a creepy presence in the play. They have inadvertently sold the house to the neighborhood’s first black family and have ignited a community showdown.
Karl (Cliff Chamberlain), inspired by the character of the same name in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 semi-autobiographical “A Raisin in the Sun,” leads the screaming charge against neighborhood integration, with his ironically deaf wife trailing behind him, struggling to understand. The side-by-side treatments of disability and race in both acts are fascinating.
In 2009, the neighborhood is ripe for gentrification and a young white couple has bought the house, planning to demolish it and rebuild bigger and better, with the help of a temperamental Spanish architect. When the couple meets with their neighbors and a lawyer, talk of housing codes turns into an uncomfortable discussion of race. The wives Lena (Karen Aldridge) and Lindsey (Stephanie Childers), trying so hard to stay level-headed and not to offend anyone, feel particularly like real people you’ve met. So much has changed since 1959, and yet, so much hasn’t.