From “Raisin” to “Clybourne”

By on 30 May, 2014 in Fun, Greg Thornton with 0 Comments

“…Or is it maybe that racism, per se, isn’t really the problem. Maybe it’s the denial of it. Maybe it’s our unwillingness to admit that we all once belonged to a tribe of greedy, violent apes contending over territory with other apes, and that we’re still figuring out what to do with that legacy, as we suspiciously regard each other across the boundaries we live within.” – Bruce Norris on “Clybourne Park”

CPH_Clybourne_Park_facebook_851x315“Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris took the country by storm when it debuted in 2010. Just about every major theater in the country put it on their schedule. When plays catch fire like this one did, you have to pay attention to it. Is it just the next hot new thing? Is it simply because it is fairly easy to produce with a small cast and a unit set? These are real considerations given the economic struggles that confront most arts organizations. Ultimately, it is the story and the wonderfully smart and honest way in which it is told by Bruce Norris that provides the be-all and end-all for doing it. The play confronts head-on so many contemporary issues and packs them into a concise and crafted script that it makes your head spin.

Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and the 2012 Tony Award, “Clybourne Park” explodes in two outrageous acts set 50 years apart. Act One takes place in 1959, as  nervous community leaders anxiously try to stop the sale of a home to a black family, who happen to be the Youngers, the protagonists of “A Raisin in the Sun.” ( More about that later). Act Two is set in the same house in the present day, as the now predominantly African-American neighborhood battles to hold its ground in the face of gentrification.

This is a no-holds barred play that leaves everyone in its wake. It does so with truly funny, genuinely shocking, bare-bones honesty in its characters and its language. Characters confront each other from every pin placement on the cultural map. They find the ground shifting beneath them at every turn. Long held ideologies are turned upside down, beliefs questioned, and well-ordered lives flipped inside out like so many cards in a neatly piled deck. This play is not for children and it is not for the faint of heart.

We are truly lucky to have a cast of courageous folks working on this play. Since each actor plays two characters, one in Act One, the other in Act Two, it is especially challenging but thrilling to work on. It is a pleasure to be in the same rehearsal room with Michael Krek, Maureen Costello, Christina Okolo, Cushing Phillips, William Allen III, Mark Hunter, Sarah Adkins, and Braxton McDonald.

As we began rehearsals last week, this great group of talented actors, along with our production team, found ourselves in deep discussions about family, community, faith, race relations, and myriad cultural landmines. After a while, it seemed as if it were the characters having at it around the table and no longer the actors, and I couldn’t help thinking that we were on our way. It will be quite a ride from opening to closing and we await our audience as they walk into “Clybourne Park.”

Since “Clybourne Park” is a “companion” piece to “A Raisin in the Sun,” I went back through some notes I made as we were beginning rehearsals for this extraordinary play in March and thought I’d share a bit of that. But first, the playwright in a quote that could easily fit the character of Walter Lee Younger, as he confronts Karl Lindner in the final moments of the play:

“He is all those things because he has finally reached out in his tiny moment and caught that sweet essence which is human dignity, and it shines like the old star-touched dream that it is in his eyes.”

Lorraine Hansberry

 

b and w Lena and Walter

William Allen III and Yvette Jones-Smedley in the Cloverdale Playhouse’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” Photo Courtesy of Mark Dauber

Greg’s notes from the pre-production work on “A Raisin in the Sun,” which ran at the Cloverdale Playhouse from April 24-May 4:

It was always clear to me that the Cloverdale Playhouse would produce “A Raisin in the Sun.” It was just a matter of time. It became abundantly clear that the time was now after re-reading the 30th Anniversary edition of the play which restored a number of scenes taken out of the original 1959 script. Then, re-reading Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” (a companion to Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal work), it was a match made in theater heaven. Both plays stand on their own powerful stories but, taken together, they pack a wallop that audiences will feel for a very long time. “A Raisin in the Sun,” set in the early 1950’s, tells the story of the Younger Family who live in a poor neighborhood in Southside Chicago. In their efforts to attain a better life, they confront seemingly insurmountable challenges from all sides of a society rife with racism, lacking in economic equality, and unwilling to give over to a new age and time. The courage, strength, and faith maintained by the Youngers throughout all of this provide a life lesson in the power of family to rise above the most difficult things that life presents.

The play received its first New York production in March of 1959, opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. It starred Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee Younger (Brother) and Claudia McNeil as Lena Younger (Mama). Ruby Dee played Ruth Younger, Walter Lee’s wife. The play has had many productions around the world and is now currently back on Broadway starring Denzel Washington. It is no secret as to why the play endures, why it is part of the canon of American literature, or why actors and directors yearn to work on it. It is simply a great story filled with powerful characters and long-held truths.

As theater artists, it is always a profound privilege to work on a play like this. The script is something so honest, raw, funny, deeply personal and emotional, that you simply want to stay out of its way and let it tell its story. While working on it, I continue to marvel at its power and its unsettling relevance, given that it was produced in 1959. The story it tells clearly speaks to a particular situation and continues to shed such a penetrating light on a universal truth.

And now….onto “Clybourne Park”

Greg Thornton is the Artistic Director of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

 

COMING UP AT THE PLAYHOUSE

CLYBOURNE PARK   June 19-June 29 Th/Fri/ Sat 7:30 p.m./Sun 2 p.m.

Joe Thomas Jr.  3rd Tuesday Guitar Pull Tuesday June 24 (*date change)

Page to Stage Playwriting Contest entries deadline extended to June 30

Playhouse School Summer Workshops start July 8

For tickets and further information: Call 334.262.1530

Online: cloverdaleplayhouse.org

 

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