The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Oct 2, 2010

Clybourne Park

We went to see Bruce Norris's play Clybourne Park at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs today. It is an exploration of old-time racism, and modern-day racism, and considers the meaning of 'community.' Is a community a bunch of like-minded neighbours who watch out for and support each other? Or is it a mix of suffocating mores and mutual espionage that keeps people in line and chokes back resentments?

This play in two parts deals with two time periods - the first, in the 1950s, deals with a white family moving out of their suburban home in Clybourne Park, an all-white neighbourhood. They have sold their house to a black family, and when the neighbours find out, they want to persuade them to sell it to the church instead (at least I think it's the church). The man of the house is on knife-edge, apathetic at one moment, and apoplectic with rage at the next, while his wife, a high-strung woman with a laugh that grates on every nerve ending, tries to keep him calm. It gradually emerges that their son, a Korean War veteran, had committed suicide two years earlier, and they had never quite healed from that loss. They had received no support from the 'community' during those harrowing times, and now, when that self-same community wants them to stop the black people from coming in, they can scarcely hold back their tempers.

In the second half, the same area in the present day is mainly a black neighbourhood, and a white couple wants to move in as it gentrifies, and aims to do some conversions to a derelict-looking house (which, as it turns out, is the same as the first one we saw). A black couple, representing the neighbourhood association, is not very pleased about their rebuilding plans, thinking it clashes not just with the architectural style of the area, but also its 'history' - namely that of the African Americans who had settled there in the past half-century. The argument for and against the renovation quickly ramifies into name-calling, the issue of race, and the resentments that both whites and blacks feel in modern America.

This is a play that is filled with dark and corrosive wit. There is one particular set-piece when the characters aim to show each other that they are not offended by stereotyped humour by angrily crunching out increasingly vulgar and poisonous jokes that target whites and blacks and, then, in a sudden twist, women. But it also has moments of quietude and stillness. When the father of the dead soldier realises that he can submerge his anguish by getting out of the house to work whereas his wife is always left behind at home with nothing to distract her, the incoherence of his suggestions to her starkly expose his isolation and loss of empathy. While he drowned in his grief, it never occurred to him that his wife was in equal sorrow, and that moment of realisation is one of grace. 

At other times, the rest of the characters all appear far too self-possessed and fluent in their mutual recriminations. All sorts of ill-feeling has lurked in the breasts of the residents of Clybourne Park, both in the past and in the present. Bruce Norris is skillful in revealing the divisions that pervade the intellectual discourse on race and modern life. That he does it without taking sides or being didactic is particularly satisfying.

[Catch it while you can at the Royal Court. It's moving to the West End in a couple of months, and you'll be paying twice as much for the privilege.]


Anonymous said...

you shoul really have an email on your potable blog to make sending you things easier

Fëanor said...

thanks, i say.

Rochelle's Roost said...

I wonder whether this play was inspired by Lorraine Hansbury's "Raisin in the Sun" (whose title was, in turn, inspired by Langhston's Hughes' poem: "What happens to a raisin in the sun?").

In Hansbury's play, an African-American family in the early 1960s--just before the Civil Rights Movement--wishes to move to a house in Clybourne Park, an exclusively white neighborhood, and are deeply insulted when a representative from the neighborhood visits them and offers them money to stay away.

If you haven't read the play, I think you will enjoy it. I taught it for several years and always showed a really good film version of it (starring Danny Glover among other fine actors)in class as part of my course.

Fëanor said...

Rochelle: you are indeed correct. There was an article in the New York Times that talks about the connection.

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